Recognition wasn’t on her mind when Bernie LaSarte started an advocacy program more than a decade ago targeting the victims of domestic violence on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation.
At a meeting Tuesday in Coeur d’Alene, LaSarte, 66, was given kudos by a top regional law enforcement agency for the work she began, and carried out for the past 14 years.
Recognition was the reason for the meeting at the FBI’s local field office at Riverstone.
Special Agent Eric Barnhart flew from the FBI’s regional headquarters in Salt Lake City to present LaSarte with the 2017 Director’s Community Leadership Award on behalf of FBI Director Christopher Wray. Recipients — there are only 56 nationwide — have demonstrated outstanding contributions to their local communities through selfless service, according to the FBI.
But that wasn’t the real award.
LaSarte will travel to Washington, D.C., for that.
“I can’t think of a more deserving person,” Barnhart said.
When LaSarte started the Tribe’s victim advocacy program, called STOP Violence Against Women, she had four case files. By building relationships with local law enforcement, tribal members and the tribal court system, her case files have grown to more than 400.
“I don’t know if that is good news or tragic news,” Barnhart said. “Maybe it’s both.”
About 25 people including tribal members and police, as well as federal prosecutors and agents, attended the ceremony to recognize LaSarte, a former emergency room nurse who for almost a decade traveled to work in Seattle for long shifts four times a month, which allowed her to spend her free time at home in Plummer, where she worked as a victim advocate.
She retired from nursing seven years ago, but she continues operating the STOP program, the Tribe’s only victim advocacy program, which has grown substantially and includes enhanced services such as counseling, a staff and a larger office, LaSarte said.
“My first office was in a closet,” she said.
In those days, she spent the grant stipend she received to establish the program to pay her airfare back to Seattle to attend her regular job. She then used her paycheck from the hospital to get back to Plummer to operate the program, she said.
That went on for years. Her work took her back and forth between mending physical wounds in the ER to mending psychological wounds on the reservation.
A victim of domestic violence herself, LaSarte said her sister, Angie, was the ultimate victim of domestic violence. In 2005, Angie LaSarte was shot in the neck by her ex-boyfriend, Donald Houser, 22, of Plummer. Houser was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for the murder outside Bobbi’s Bar in Plummer.
When she started, LaSarte said there was no real recognition of domestic violence.
“There was no name for it,” she said. “I think we’ve come a long way.”
Barnhart’s department and the work it does in Indian Country has come a long way too, he said.
“We were good at solving crimes,” he said. But agents weren’t so good at mending the broken lives of the victims of those crimes.
“We were like Joe Friday, saying, ‘Hey kid, give me the facts and I’ll investigate the crime,’” Barnhart said. “We didn’t do anything to rebuild that life that was shattered.”
These days, the FBI, local law enforcement and the court system coordinate with LaSarte’s team to break the cycle of domestic violence on the reservation where, he said, women and children are more than three times more likely to be victims.
Nationwide, 28 percent of the population will be victims of domestic violence, but the number jumps to more than 90 percent in Indian Country, he said.
Only now it is recognized, and thanks to people like Bernie LaSarte, a parachute exists.
“It’s far from perfect,” Barnhart said. “But compared to 1999 when I was an agent in Indian Country, we’re light years ahead.”