Tribal leaders from Minnesota and several other states joined President Donald Trump on Tuesday for the launch of a federal initiative to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women whose cases have lingered unresolved or fallen through cracks in the legal system.
The new Operation Lady Justice Task Force gets underway as states across the country are forming similar groups to address the long-standing problem. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz signed off this year on a state-level task force to tackle the situation.
Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin, who looked on as Trump signed the executive order, said having state and federal officials take up the issue at the same time creates a chance for key partnerships. The federal government, different levels of law enforcement and medical professionals need to work together, she said.
The task force will establish teams from tribal and federal law enforcement to review unsolved cases. The group also is charged with helping increase public awareness and cooperation between various levels of law enforcement.
“We will leverage every resource we have to bring safety to our tribal communities, and we will not waver in this mission,” Trump said as he signed the order. The Department of Justice also will issue grants to improve safety in Native American communities, he said.
The launch of the task force follows an announcement by Attorney General William Barr last week that the Department of Justice will spend $1.5 million to hire coordinators to work in U.S. attorney’s offices across the country and focus on creating better ways for law enforcement to handle reports of missing people. The department also will analyze how it gathers data on missing person cases and look for ways to improve the collection of information.
There have been gaps in the publicly available information and resources about Native American women and girls who have disappeared or been killed, said Minnesota Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton. She is co-chair of the state’s task force on the issue.
Among the states, Minnesota has the ninth highest number of missing and murdered Native American women cases, according to a study by the Urban Indian Health Institute. That report states the Department of Justice’s national missing persons database only logged 116 cases of the more than 5,700 missing indigenous women and girls reports recorded in 2016 by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
Kunesh-Podein said that with the Trump administration’s new effort she would like the federal government to make more historic data available about cases of violence and sex crimes against Native women.
She also said the Department of Justice grants could potentially jump-start some of the state-level work. While the parameters for those federal grants were not immediately clear, Kunesh-Podein quickly listed areas where federal money would help — some of which overlap with the aims of the federal task force. Several Minnesotans have pushed for a public awareness campaign with billboards and call lines, she said, and more money is needed for mental health resources to help community members dealing with emotional trauma.
“This certainly opens up opportunities for states and tribes to collaborate with federal resources,” Kunesh-Podein said.
The Minnesota task force had its first meeting in September. It has created subcommittees to tackle issues such as public safety, community outreach, health and human services, Kunesh-Podein said. They are scheduled to hear public testimony at their next meeting on Dec. 12 in Hinckley.
The state task force has until the end of 2020 to come up with recommendations to present to the Legislature.
Together, the federal and state task forces have put a spotlight on a problem that has long been out of the public eye, said Benjamin, the Mille Lacs Band executive. After the Trump event, a phrase Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan often uses to describe Native American women and girls was ringing in Benjamin’s head: “We’re invisible, and at the worst we’re disposable.”
While Benjamin lauded the attention brought to the issue, she offered some specific goals for the groups: Give tribes sufficient resources to address the crisis, ensure tribal leaders are involved in all decisionmaking and prosecute perpetrators to the full extent of the law.