WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar is leading an effort to create a federal office for missing and murdered Black women and girls that mirrors a new Minnesota law.
"I want there to be an urgent and delicate response when families and loved ones call about their missing relative," the Minnesota Democrat said in an interview. "I want there to be an understanding and change in the way in which we think about the lives of Black people in this country."
Omar's move in Washington comes after Minnesota broke new ground on the issue.
Minnesota lawmakers passed legislation this spring to create the nation's first Office for Missing and Murdered African American Women and Girls, one of the recommendations of a task force that dug into why they experience violence at much higher rates than other groups.
Black women make up only 7% of the population in Minnesota, but they represent 40% of domestic violence victims in the state, and they are three times more likely to be murdered than white women, according to the task force's report.
"As Black women, we are just so often forgotten and the trauma is normalized, that you're going to experience violence and you're going to experience pain," said state Sen. Clare Oumou Verbeten, DFL-St. Paul, who co-sponsored the legislation. "This office is about recognizing that these are human beings, they are women and girls and they deserve the same amount of attention we give to others."
The legislation was largely advanced by Black women at the State Capitol, including former DFL state Rep. Ruth Richardson. The new state office has an annual budget of $1.24 million and is modeled after Minnesota's Office for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives. A spokeswoman with the Department of Public Safety said the office will have a staff of seven people, including an executive director.
The law requires the director to have close connections to the Black community and have familiarity with criminal investigations.
Oumou Verbeten is excited about the push to create a similar office at the federal level, which could collaborate with state offices to share data and best practices.
"They are absolutely going to be looking to us as we are the first state actually implementing this office, leading this work, and learning some key lessons that's going to help the rest of the country follow suit," she said.
The federal bill's early supporters include Minnesota Democratic representatives Betty McCollum, Angie Craig and Dean Phillips. No Republicans had signed on to sponsor the bill as of Thursday.
McCollum said in a statement that "with this bill, we are leading with our Minnesota values," while Craig added in a statement of her own that "following the effort at the state level during the last session, I'm joining my Minnesota colleagues in pushing to do the same on the national level to ensure this issue is receiving the urgent attention and care it deserves."
Omar's office announced recently that the bill has been named after Britanny Clardy, a St. Paul woman who went missing in 2013 at the age of 18. Clardy was later found dead inside a car at a Columbia Heights impound lot. Her family has said that they feel Clardy could have been saved if her case had been taken seriously by law enforcement.
"I feel very inspired and I'm excited for the opportunity for change," Clardy's sister Lakeisha Lee, who is co-founder of the Brittany Clardy Foundation, said in an interview about Omar's legislation.
The bill also outlines that the leader of the office would make recommendations, collect and track data, and create "a national advisory commission of Black women and girls who have experienced violence, abduction, or trafficking, and family members who have lost a loved one to this violence."
While Omar's bill already has clear support from some Democrats, it may have a difficult time passing the GOP-controlled U.S. House. Minnesota's four congressional Republicans did not respond to a request for comment recently about the new federal legislation.
"Bills of this nature don't just breeze through Congress," U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat leading the effort with Omar, said while encouraging advocacy for the bill during an event on Wednesday.