State officials don’t know how many Native American women are missing

Local, state and federal agencies fumble coordination and data about crimes against Indigenous people

By: - September 1, 2021 7:17 am

Activists march in 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

When an Indigenous person needs support in a violent and dangerous situation, an ally in the community is a rare vital resource.

In Nambé Pueblo, Chastity Sandoval is that person. 

“There is a high chance of no justice happening,” said Sandoval, the victim legal advocate in Nambé. “So how do we accommodate and accompany our victims (to court)? And then to also prepare for the reality of the truth that there’s a very slim chance that we’re going to succeed and be heard?”

Tuesday, Aug. 31, was a chance for her to express these realities for those who cannot.

Sandoval is a citizen of the Navajo Nation and law student at the University of Arizona. She’s also the chair of the Data Subcommittee for New Mexico’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives Task Force. 

The MMIW task force met Tuesday to hear presentations from Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez and Aubony Burns, a prosecutor in Washington. They told the 44-person panel — composed of tribal citizens, survivors or their family, state lawmakers, victims’ advocates and law enforcement — about the problems and potential solutions in prosecuting crimes against Native American women.

“There are obviously very serious data issues around understanding the scale and scope of the problem,” Torrez said. 

Congress did pass last year Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act, which is the first piece of legislation signed into law that was sponsored by then-Rep.Deb Haaland. The laws are intended to allow easier access to records, improve communications and clarify responsibilities between local and federal entities, as well as incentivize communities to coordinate action plans. 

Tribal jurisdictions operate at the federal level.

It’s still too early to say if the laws are helping in New Mexico.

DA Torrez cited communication issues between jurisdictions — state, tribal, city and federal — even arguing the disconnect happens with reporting software that doesn’t sync between law enforcement agencies operating in Albuquerque.

“I have systems where the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office, and their data does not meet or match the Albuquerque Police Department,” he said. “Because Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office has a system that was built in 1992 and APD’s was built in 1998, and even if they wanted to communicate, they couldn’t communicate.”

To further make his point, Torrez presented a figure from the National Clearinghouse database that shows 21 active missing person’s cases in New Mexico involving Native American women. 

“I am no expert in this space, and as everyone here knows, is relatively late to this conversation, but I don’t think anyone actually believes that there’s only 21 missing Indigenous women in the state,” he said. 

Sandoval agreed. 

“I know it’s got to be at least triple that,” she said. “Even more.”

Running the data subcommittee means navigating the complex nature of multiple law enforcement agencies and offering suggestions for victims on how to move forward. Some, Sandoval said, don’t want to testify in court for fear of being in proximity to the person who assaulted them. Sandoval also can’t force people to seek treatment unless it’s court ordered. And when a case doesn’t proceed with a prosecution or conviction, she said, victims can feel further abused by the system. 

“We cannot make them do anything they don’t want to do. Everything is their choice. That’s the hard part, too,” Sandoval said. “We can just encourage them to stick with things to tell them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and then, at least this will help you. It’s not a magic wand.  It’s not going to be healed right then and there. It’s going to be a lifelong journey

Tuesday’s meeting is a step in bridging the gap between law enforcement agencies, tribal entities and the people they are supposed to serve. 

Sandoval’s data subcommittee will meet again Thursday, Sept. 2, to discuss further plans to alleviate the reporting issues that give an incomplete picture of the MMIW problem. 

One suggestion the group has rallied behind is the idea of establishing a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Day that could be held sometime in May to support families and victims, while also providing resources for people who are seeking assistance.

“When people are reporting somebody missing, they’re not clear-minded,” Sandoval said. “They’re forgetful of what they wanted to add in some of the reports. So this gives them another opportunity to come back and to do a thorough report or to give an update.”

What the numbers say

Available data shows the grim reality of a system with repeated failures. According to the task force

  • New Mexico has the highest rate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases in the country.
  • Native American women have the highest rate of death by homicide among all racial groups in New Mexico. 
  • Native American women make up 16% of all unsolved missing persons cases between 2014 and 2019. 
  • Two cities, Albuquerque and Gallup, are in the top 10 in the United States for MMIW cases. 
  • Between 2014 and 2019, Albuquerque reported 660 cases of missing Native Americans. 287 of those cases involve women.
  • In Gallup during the same time period, women accounted for 53% of the 675 missing-persons cases involving Native Americans. 
  • In the Four Corners, Farmington reports 66% of its missing-persons cases involve Indigenous women. 
  • Statewide, 506 MMIW cases are active in New Mexico. More than half, 280, are murder cases. The average age of the victims is 29.
  • About 79.5% of criminal investigations opened by the FBI were referred to prosecution and 21 percent of those cases were closed because they did not meet prosecution guidelines, the U.S. Department of Justice Indian Country Investigations and Prosecutions Report noted in 2017. The cases were thrown out due to lack of evidence that a crime was committed, and because the deaths being investigated were the result of an “accident, suicide, or natural causes.” 

 

RESOURCES

New Mexico Crisis and Access Line: 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474)

24 hours a day, 7 days a week

TTY 1-855-227-5485

New Mexico Peer-to-Peer Warmline: 1-855-4NM-7100 (466-7100)

Call 7 a.m.–11:30 p.m.  |  Text 6 p.m.–11 p.m. every day

Language services always available

StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483)

Rape Crisis Center of Central N.M. 24- Hour Crisis Hotline: (505-266-7711)

The Life Link 24-Hour Crisis Response Line: 1-505-GET-FREE (1-505-438-3733)

You can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to BEFREE (“233733”)

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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