On a gloomy day in September, Lisa Hayden rushed through the circular door of the Yurok Tribal Court in Klamath, California, with her 1-year-old son on her hip. Hayden, 31, worried that the day wouldn’t turn out any different from all the others she’d spent in court trying to protect herself from her ex-husband. For 12 years, starting when she was pregnant with their first child, Hayden alleges, her ex-husband had held guns to her head, punched her, and called her terrible names.
The abuse that Hayden says she suffered is shockingly common: According to a Justice Department study in 2016, four out of five Native Americans have experienced violence from an intimate partner. In 97 percent of those cases, Native women were victimized by non-Natives. To make matters worse, indigenous people are less likely to receive fair treatment when interacting with police and judges, according to a recent analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and a report from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
This has been Hayden’s experience. Last year, anticipating her ex-husband’s release from prison, Hayden went to county court to request a restraining order, showing the judge threatening letters her ex had sent from prison. After spending less than five minutes listening to Hayden, the judge dismissed her fears as something “she had to work through” and denied her request. Within six months of his release, according to Hayden, her ex-husband—high on heroin, wearing a bulletproof vest, and armed with three guns—kicked in the front door of her apartment, yelling that he wanted to kill her, as she and her three children huddled on the floor. Though her ex was sent back to prison, Hayden remained afraid.
This was why Hayden brought her request for a restraining order to Judge Abby Abinanti of the Yurok Tribal Court, a respected figure with a distinctive approach to jurisprudence. Abinanti doesn’t wear a robe, opting instead for jeans and cowboy boots. She sits not on a dais, but behind a wooden desk in a small room. Immediately upon entering Abinanti’s courtroom on that September day, Hayden said, she felt “more like a person” than she had in county court. Abinanti listened at length, squinting as if trying to solve a puzzle.
Ultimately, Abinanti issued the restraining order. But she also made an offer to Hayden’s ex-husband, to send letters to his children and receive photos through a caseworker; an earlier offer still stands for him to attend a program designed by Abinanti’s court to rehabilitate batterers, and to remove his gang tattoos on the tribe’s dime. The goal was to protect Hayden while giving her ex-husband a chance to end his cycle into and out of prison. (So far, he’s refused all services.) “No one ever came up with that in the county system,” Hayden said after Abinanti’s ruling, smiling as her kids played nearby. “No one ever tried to get at the root of it. ‘Relieved’ is the big word for today.”