Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Jun 13 2017

Heitkamp’s Bipartisan Bill to Help Protect Missing & Abducted Children in Indian Country Unanimously Passes Senate Committee

Earlier this Month, Senator Keynoted a National Symposium on Keeping Children Safe on Tribal Lands, Combating Human Trafficking

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) today announced that her bipartisan bill to help boost protections for children in Indian Country unanimously passed the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – the final step before reaching the Senate floor.

Heitkamp’s bipartisan AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, which she helped introduce with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, would expand child abduction – or AMBER Alert – warnings in Indian Country. Law enforcement depends on AMBER Alerts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible and coordinate rapidly among law enforcement offices, but such alerts are non-existent in North Dakota’s Indian Country, and are often limited to tribal lands across the nation. When Heitkamp spoke at a national child protection symposium in Bismarck earlier this month, she asked for a show of hands from tribal leaders on whether they have AMBER Alert systems on their lands – and not a single person raised their hand.

“There is not a single night that I rest easy knowing the threats too many children in Indian Country face,” said Heitkamp. “When a child is abducted or goes missing, law enforcement relies on AMBER Alert systems to help bring them to safety. But earlier this month when I asked North Dakota’s tribal leaders to raise their hands if such alerts existed on their reservations, not a single person raised their hand. That’s telling. Across the nation, when such alerts do exist in Indian Country, they’re often limited to tribal lands and don’t reach the public and law enforcement beyond the reservation – a vulnerability criminals can too easily exploit. That’s unacceptable – traffickers and abductors must know they cannot go off the grid in Indian Country. By passing my bipartisan bill, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs sent a message that every Native child ought to be protected by the full force of our law enforcement – and today was the first step.”

Building on her work to protect every Native child and community from criminals seeking anonymity on their lands, Heitkamp brought then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James B. Comey to Fort Berthold last spring to discuss the urgent need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence and an improved federal response on the ground in Indian Country, and is continuing to fight toward diverse solutions to combat human trafficking crimes, particularly on tribal lands.

Heitkamp is committed to addressing the comprehensive challenges Native young people face, including threats to their safety addressed at the symposium earlier this month. Last month, Heitkamp announced that her new Commission on Native Children – created by her bill that became law last October, the first piece of legislation she introduced as a U.S. senator – would be funded in the spending bill Congress passed. The Commission will tackle the chronic issues facing Native children – including poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence – and offer real solutions to address them.

For months, Heitkamp has been pressing President Trump, members of his Administration’s Cabinet, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly appoint members to the 11-member Commission comprised of individuals specializing in juvenile justice, social work, as well as mental and physical health. So far, Dr. Tami DeCoteau of Bismarck, Russ McDonald of Bismarck’s United Tribes Technical College, Anita Fineday of the Casey Family Programs’ Indian Child Welfare Program, as well as Carlyle Begay of Arizona and Melody Staebner of Fargo have been appointed to serve on the Commission.

As part of her efforts to protect Native young people as well as North Dakota’s broader communities, Heitkamp has become a leader in the U.S. Senate in the fight against human trafficking. In September 2013, Heitkamp led an initial hearing to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking right in our own backyard, including in North Dakota. Since then, Heitkamp has been an integral player in the legislative charge for action to fight human trafficking, playing a key role in passing in the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan legislation. Now law, the bill includes stricter punishments against traffickers who transport victims across state lines, and legal protections from her Safe Harbor bill to make sure victims are not treated as criminals. In addition to introducing bipartisan legislation to give health care providers – including doctors, nurses, and social workers – training to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking, Heitkamp is continuing to push the Senate protect runaway and homeless youth, some of the most susceptible targets of human traffickers, and successfully secured landmark anti-human trafficking protections for children in schools in the No Child Left Behind reform legislation.

###

Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov