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Squelching the silent scourge

UND’s Jacque Gray finding path to relieve the challenge of documenting and preventing elder abuse in American Indian communities

Jacque Gray
UND’s Jacque Gray is very well known in American Indian and government circles as a powerful advocate — and researcher — in issues related to native aging, elder abuse and other troubling health disparities in Indian country. Photo by Shawna Schill.

Don’t be fooled by the academic title, the lab tech degree, and the “Okie” background, nor the cubicle she works out of — Jacque Gray is a force to be reckoned with.

With a full-page profile on the American Psychological Association’s website (among others), Gray is very well known in American Indian and government circles as a powerful advocate — and researcher — in issues related to native aging, elder abuse and other troubling health disparities in Indian country.

She manages several programs, along with a national network of colleagues and students, from her office in the University of North Dakota’s Center for Rural Health (CRH), housed at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

That’s not saying as much as we should: Gray, in fact, coordinates and nurtures several programs directly, and mentors several more across the country. She’s also a publishing whirlwind, with scores of refereed and widely referenced academic publications indexed on places such as Google Scholar.

Her reach is such that federal agencies have several times reached out to her with a call: “Please, take our money.”

Most recently, she received a $350,000 installment on a two-year $700,000 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) grant. Not long afterward, Sanford Health awarded Gray more than $100,000 for a project titled “Wac’in Yeya: The Hope Project.”

Gray keeps a level head and low profile about her own work, sharing credit with colleagues and students alike.

A big part of her work, under the recent DHHS grant, is to expand the development of an elder-abuse code that can be used on reservations across the country. Gray says her team already has developed model codes that tribes can adapt for their communities.

“That’ll be funded, in part, with $150,000 from the grant to be parceled out to tribes as mini-grants to further develop elder-abuse infrastructure and policies,” said Gray, who holds a Ph.D. in applied behavioral studies, with a specialty in counseling psychology, from Oklahoma State University.

“Our research clearly showed that there is no such code in place, no policies nor procedures in place, no people designated for investigations, in other words, no boots-on-the-ground efforts in terms of elder abuse,” Gray said. “The expectation … is that we follow through on what we’ve been hearing directly from the tribes in terms of setting up the needed infrastructure to address the elder-abuse challenge.”

That includes developing and deploying training modules for tribal justice and social systems. On the backside, it includes gathering data that will be delivered back to the tribes to help them manage their response to elder abuse.

“Right now, there are no contemporary data available about the frequency of elder abuse, the kinds of elder abuse; the problem is an asterisk on documented lists of similar problems in other communities,” said Gray, who was recently asked to be part of a White House discussion about American Indian issues.

A key part of the program she’s putting together to combat elder abuse is a survey for tribes to use, including training in the use of surveys and the research protocols. Without such knowledge, it’s tough to extract useful information, Gray notes.

Eventually, Gray’s efforts could reach hundreds of the 567 federally recognized tribes, plus some of the 400 state-recognized or other unrecognized tribes, around the country.

“That’s a pretty good reach, especially when you consider that Native Americans make up 50 percent of the diversity in this country,” she said. “We want to help both the tribes and our students learn to do research.”

More about Gray:

Jacque Gray is a research associate professor and the associate director of Indigenous Programs at the CRH and the Department of Population Health at UND’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Gray directs the Seven Generations Center of Excellence in Native Behavioral Health and the National Indigenous Elder Justice Initiative. She works with the National Resource Center on Native American Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health Outreach Partnership, the IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence, and the UND American Indian Health Research Conference.

Jacque also directs the Native Health Research Team and mentors more 25 Native American students.

Gray is an Oklahoman of Choctaw and Cherokee descent. She came to North Dakota in 1999 as a visiting professor in the UND Department of Counseling and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center in 2001. Gray joined the CRH in 2004.

By Juan Pedraza and Debra Sorvig