By Nora Mounce
No parent sets out and says, ‘I want to harm my child,’” says Judge Abby Abinanti. “That’s just not how it works.”
A Yurok tribe member raised in northern Humboldt County, Judge Abby – as she prefers to be called – is all too familiar with the family instability that’s so tightly correlated with rural poverty. Abinanti’s own childhood included traumatic periods of separation from her mother, during which she was supported by her extended family and community. Abinanti stresses that being responsible for others – the “it takes a village” mentality – is rooted in Yurok culture.
With decades of experience as California Superior Court commissioner, Abinanti also serves as the chief judge of the Yurok Tribal Court. Instead of choosing to retire – it’s been 45 years since Abinanti graduated from law school at the University of New Mexico - she commutes between her Klamath home and San Francisco every two weeks. When presiding over disputes in the tribe, Abinanti disrobes from her judge’s cloaks and sits eye-to-eye with the families who pass through her doors. Removing the intimidating hierarchal roles from proceedings is integral to what Abinanti refers to as “incorporating traditional culture” into the courtroom. Simple measures such as inquiring after people’s families (she knows most of them) and treating everyone with respect are fundamental to positive outcomes. After decades of working to integrate restorative justice measures into the system, Abinanti has now partnered with Humboldt County to introduce the Yurok Family Wellness Court. “We want to strengthen our families,” explains Abinanti. She stresses that people cannot overcome the adversity, addiction, and inter-generational trauma that plague her community alone – they need help.
Earlier this year, Wild Souls Ranch approached Abinanti and her colleague Judge Joyce Hinrichs about partnering with the program to help more families successfully reunite. Jumping at the opportunity, Abinanti explains how she views Wilds Souls Ranch as a new member of the family. “They have a real approach,” says Abinanti. “You can’t consequence people into good behavior. You have to model it.”
Wild Souls Ranch executive director, Savanah McCarty, believes that offering equine-therapy to Yurok families in the dependency system will be a positive step for the entire community. “We’re going to have biological parents out at the ranch for the first time,” explains McCarty. “It’s all about trying to help families stay together.” As the new partnership develops, Abinanti and McCarty hope to eventually hold one of Yurok Family Wellness Court negotiations on-site at Wild Souls. The scenic ranch in Fortuna possesses a peaceful beauty that is healing in itself - a welcome respite for families enduring hard times.
Like the Wild Souls Ranch model of trauma-informed care, Abinanti believes in serving families holistically and reserving punitive measures and incarceration as a last resort. In order to be successful at family reunification, it’s essential to focus on traditional values like family, preserving culture, and respect for the land. Horses are big part of that. “In many ways, horses have better sense than other animals – as in people. They take you at face value.” says Abinanti.
As Wild Souls Ranch continues to expand their capacity to serve Humboldt County’s at-risk youth, the organization is dedicated to maintaining their holistic perspective and partnering with like-minded organizations. Welcoming Yurok families to the ranch will be an inspirational step forward to actualizing Wild Souls Ranch commitment to being, “A place where bonds are made, foundations are built, and spirits are healed.