Editorials

Families of missing, murdered Native women have waited too long already. Pass this bill

Jenna Loring, left, the aunt of Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, cries with her cousin, Lissa Loring, during a traditional blanket dance at the North American Indian Days celebration in July on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont. Ashley went missing in June 2017, and family has searched for her ever since.
Jenna Loring, left, the aunt of Ashley HeavyRunner Loring, cries with her cousin, Lissa Loring, during a traditional blanket dance at the North American Indian Days celebration in July on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont. Ashley went missing in June 2017, and family has searched for her ever since. AP

The statistics are alarming: Washington has the second-highest number of murdered and missing indigenous women and girls in the U.S., right behind New Mexico. A recent study conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute counted 71 cases in the state.

Seattle carries the highest number in the country with 45 cases. Tacoma ranks No. 6 nationally with 25 incidents. Two of the Tacoma victims include then 2-year old Teekah Lewis, who disappeared from a bowling alley almost 20 years ago. The family of Teresa Davis, who went missing in 1973, also never received answers.

Thanks to federal legislation co-sponsored by Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, families may soon have more hope for relief.

Or so it appeared after Savanna’s Act unanimously passed the Senate last week. It has since inexplicably stalled in the House just days before the end of the 2018 congressional work calendar. If not given a vote and sent to President Trump’s desk quickly, it will go down as a disgraceful act of lame-duck politics caused by Republicans in control of the House during this session.

Savanna’s Act would improve data collection on missing persons and mandate new protocols for investigating unsolved cases. It’s named after Savanna La Fontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old Native American woman who went missing from her Fargo, North Dakota, home last year and was later found murdered. She was eight months pregnant.

Savanna’s killer confessed and was sentenced to life in prison, but that’s not the case for many families; they go to bed night after night not knowing what happened to their daughters, sisters, mothers and friends.

The FBI’s National Crime Information Center database reports 633 open missing-persons cases for Native Americans, but the National Crime Information Center believes the figure is much higher due to underreporting.

And therein lies the problem. Databases are out of date. Numbers are hard to pin down. Information sharing between tribes and local law enforcement has been poor.

Faced with unacceptable statistics — such as that one in five Native women will experience sexual assault in her lifetime, and that women with tribal heritage are subject to violence 10 times the national average — our leaders can no longer look the other way in good conscience.

Pacific Northwest tribes are our neighbors, and all women deserve to live free of violence. It’s time to stop crimes from going under-reported, under-enforced and under-prosecuted.

To that end, the federal government is making more money available to tribal crime victims. Credit goes to some squeaky wheels, Cantwell among the loudest. In April, she sent a letter to the appropriations committee requesting more funds for indigenous women, including domestic-violence shelters where victims can receive medical care, counseling and legal assistance.

The national #metoo focus on sexual assault and harassment across all facets of society has also brought attention to the problem.

Many attackers of indigenous women are non-Indians who may know they’re immune from prosecution; it’s why in 2013, under the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Cantwell fought for the rights of tribes to prosecute non-tribal suspects in domestic assault cases.

Efforts are under way at the state level, too. Next June, a report will be presented to the Legislature detailing how the Washington State Patrol and other agencies can better investigate and manage information related to missing indigenous women.

Bringing criminals to justice will take more than one act of Congress, but Savanna’s Act is a key piece. There’s no reason for a new Congress to start over on this bill next year. The House must call a vote and pass it promptly.

In so doing, our country will deliver a message to the families of the murdered and missing, which they should have received long ago: These women and girls matter.

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