Apr 16 2018
Bipartisan Legislation Part of Heitkamp’s Comprehensive Approach to Addressing Crime & Human Trafficking Issues in Indian Country
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and John McCain (R-AZ) announced that their bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country has been signed into law.
“This bipartisan success will fix a weak link in our ability to find and protect children who have been abducted or run away from Indian Country, and I’m thrilled the president has now signed our bipartisan bill into law,” Heitkamp said. “Senator McCain shares my passion for protecting children and improving law enforcement in Indian Country, and our bill will give law enforcement more tools to solve and prevent crimes and keep children safe. We must continue the fight to make every community strong and safe, which is why I also introduced Savanna’s Act to build on this progress and combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women and girls.”
“I am gratified the President has signed into law our bipartisan Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act,” said Senator McCain. “This legislation addresses serious gaps in current law that have prevented tribes from quickly issuing AMBER Alerts and helping children like Ashlynne escape tragedy. We must ensure tribes have the resources they need to improve public safety, and this bill will expand and expedite child abduction alerts so we can help victims and save lives.”
Heitkamp and McCain introduced the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country. Such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible, but currently such alerts are not available in many parts of Indian Country – or are limited to tribal lands. By making tribes eligible for AMBER Alert system resources, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and government officials will better be able to coordinate to find and rescue missing or abducted children, particularly if they have been taken off of their reservation.
The bill is named for Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year old Navajo girl who was abducted and murdered in 2016. In that high profile case, authorities did not issue an AMBER Alert for Ashlynne until the day after family members reported her abduction. Tragically, thousands of other kids like Ashlynne living on Native American reservations have fallen victim to abduction. According to the FBI, more than 8,000 children are listed as missing in Indian Country today.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) currently operates a pilot program that offers AMBER Alert training services to Native American tribes, but the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act makes that initiative permanent and enhances DOJ oversight of how the grants are used. The legislation also reauthorizes the DOJ grant program that assists state and local governments in developing and implementing AMBER Alert communication plans. These communication plans are used by law enforcement agencies to expedite child abduction alerts to the public. The bill also requires the DOJ to perform a needs assessment of AMBER Alert capabilities on Indian reservations.
Heitkamp has long been working to build a more robust response to addressing crime and human trafficking in Indian Country and of Native Americans. Last October, she introduced Savanna’s Act to make sure North Dakota’s tribes have the information and resources they need to protect women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking. The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, and it has attracted strong bipartisan support. Companion legislation was also introduced in the House of Representatives by U.S. Representatives Norma Torres (D-CA) and Tom Cole (R-OK).
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.
In September last 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.
Heitkamp has launched a social media campaign using #NotInvisible to raise awareness about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and bring it out of the shadows. Click here for video of Heitkamp discussing the initiative. Heitkamp has also featured the stories of missing and murdered women on her Facebook page to raise awareness about the crisis. Click here to read their stories.
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.