Oct 05 2017
Heitkamp Introduces Savanna’s Act to Help Address Crisis of Missing and Murdered Native American Women
Senator’s Bill Would Help Improve Information Sharing, Data Collection, and Response Protocols for All Levels of Law Enforcement
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today introduced Savanna’s Act, legislation to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls.
Heitkamp’s legislation is the latest component of her effort to ensure North Dakota’s tribes have the information and resources they need to protect women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking. The bill is named in honor of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind, who was tragically killed in August. It specifically builds on a bipartisan bill she introduced earlier this year to create an Amber alert warning in Indian Country to help stop abductions.
On some reservations, Native women are murdered at ten times the national average, and 84 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime. In 2016, North Dakota had 125 reported cases of missing Native women according to the National Crime Information Center, but numbers are likely much higher as cases are often under reported and data isn’t officially collected. Heitkamp will speak on the floor of the U.S. Senate today to share stories from families of missing and murdered Native women to help raise awareness about this problem and call for action on her bill. A live stream of her speech will be available on her Facebook page.
“Native women and girls face a crisis of exploitation, violence, and murder – we must take action to protect them as I’ve long been working to do,” Heitkamp said. “The tragic killing of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind is yet another call to action, which is why I’ve named this new legislation in her memory. Tribal law enforcement agencies need better access to federal databases and criminal justice systems to solve crimes and develop prevention strategies. Law enforcement agencies across the board need to collect and keep better data on missing and murdered Native women and children, and we need to provide more federal resources to attack the problem head-on. Savanna’s Act aims to tackle these challenges and improve cooperation among law enforcement agencies at all levels so they can spring into coordinated action as soon as cases arise and help stop this epidemic to keep all of North Dakota’s communities strong and safe.”
Heitkamp’s bill is supported by United Tribes of North Dakota (UTND) and other advocates for indigenous populations.
Dave Flute, UTND Board Chairman, said, “This legislation is an important and needed step toward addressing the exploitation of Native women and girls. Senator Heitkamp has long been an advocate for Native women, children, and families, and we appreciate her taking action to prevent the kind of tragedies that have too often stricken our communities. We’re encouraged that this bill includes several of the recommendations made by UTND, and we fully support and encourage its passage.”
Click here for additional statements of support from Jacqueline Pata, Executive Director, National Congress of American Indians; Mark Fox, Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman; David Archambault II, Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman; and Michelle Rivard Parks, Assistant Director at the University of North Dakota’s Tribal Judicial Institute, Tribal Attorney for Spirit Lake, and Chief Justice of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Supreme Court.
Senators Jon Tester (D-MT), Martin Heinrich (D-NM), and Al Franken (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) cosponsored the legislation.
Specifically, Savanna’s Act would:
- Improve tribal access to certain federal crime information databases. The bill would update the data fields to be more relevant to Native Americans, and mandate that the Attorney General consult with Tribes on how to further improve these databases and their access to them. The Attorney General would then submit a report to Congress on how the U.S. Department of Justice plans to implement the suggestions and resolve the outstanding barriers Tribes face in acquiring full access to these databases.
- Require the Attorney General, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Health and Human Services to solicit recommendations from Tribes on improved access to local, regional, state, and federal crime information databases and criminal justice information systems during the annual consultations mandated under the Violence Against Women Act.
- Create standardized protocols for responding to cases of missing and murdered Native Americans. These protocols would take place in consultation with Tribes, which would include guidance on inter-jurisdictional cooperation among tribal, federal, state, and local law enforcement.
- Require an annual report to Congress with data. The report would include statistics on missing and murdered Native women, since there is little data on this problem and there isn’t a central location for keeping that information. The report would also include recommendations on how to improve data collection.
Click here for a fact sheet on the legislation.
Heitkamp today also launched a website with key resources and information on missing and murdered indigenous women, including offering steps to take if you know or suspect a person has gone missing by force.
Heitkamp has long been working to build a more robust response to addressing crime and human trafficking in Indian Country and of Native Americans. Specifically, she introduced a bipartisan bill earlier this year with U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) that would expand AMBER Alert child abduction warnings to and beyond Indian Country. The bill recently passed in a Senate committee. She has also been working for years to combat human trafficking in Indian Country and has long been calling for federal law enforcement presence on the ground on North Dakota’s tribal lands.
In September 2013, Heitkamp led an initial hearing to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking, especially in Indian Country. Since then, Heitkamp has pushed for legislative action to fight human trafficking, playing a key role in introducing and passing bipartisan legislation on the issue in 2015 in the U.S. Senate, and continuing to introduce more bills on the issue to provide resources for health care providers to stop human trafficking and protect runaway and homeless youth from trafficking. Just last week, Cindy McCain, a global leader in the effort to stop human trafficking, testified at a hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on human trafficking in Indian Country and highlighted Heitkamp’s work on the issue. Video of the hearing is available here. In 2015, Heitkamp brought Cindy McCain to North Dakota, including to Fort Berthold, to talk about how combat human trafficking.
In September of this year, Heitkamp and a group of nine bipartisan senators called for federal agencies and organizations to provide specific training to federal government employees in Indian Country to spot, stop, and respond to human trafficking and domestic violence in the communities they serve. Click here to read the letter.
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 in 2016 to continue to press him on the urgent need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence and an improved federal response on the ground in Indian Country, as she had been doing for years.
As North Dakota’s former Attorney General, Heitkamp has worked to raise awareness about the need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence across Indian Country. Since joining the U.S. Senate, she has continued to call for a permanent FBI office in western North Dakota and Indian Country. There is now an FBI office in Williston and she continues to press for an office on tribal lands.
The first bill Heitkamp co-sponsored was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which she played a major role in pushing through Congress in 2013. Heitkamp worked to include a key provision in VAWA to address the continuing crisis of violence against women in tribal communities. The provision strengthens the existing programs and provides tribal governments the force they need to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who commit these crimes on tribal land.
Through her Strong & Safe Communities Initiative, which Heitkamp launched in September 2014, Heitkamp has worked to address the emerging challenges in North Dakota as a result of the state’s population boom, including crime, exploitation, and trafficking issues in Indian Country.