Oklahoma law to tackle missing, murdered Indigenous crisis remains unfunded

Federal resources remain elusive as the OSBI implements Ida’s Law

By: - August 30, 2023 4:00 am

LaRenda Morgan poses for a photo in front of the Oklahoma Capitol. Morgan is the cousin of Ida Beard, for whom Ida's Law is named. Morgan successfully pushed lawmakers to pass Ida's Law, which was intended to help the state address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Two years after Oklahoma lawmakers passed bipartisan legislation to address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, a state law enforcement entity has not secured federal funding to carry out the new law.

This story was originally published by Oklahoma Voice. It is republished here with permission.

The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, in following the law, has appointed an agent to tackle these cases. But the agency would be able to do more if it had dedicated funding from the state or federal government, a tribal advocate pointed out.

“I think the impact of not having federal funds is that they’re probably just getting by,” said LaRenda Morgan, who helped write Ida’s Law. The statute is named after her cousin, Ida Beard, a mother of four from El Reno and member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who’s been missing since 2015.

Anyone with information about Ida Beard or another missing person can call 1-833-560-2065 or email [email protected] to connect with the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Office of Justice Services.

The OSBI estimates there are at least 500 cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people in Oklahoma, according to a database the agency helped compile following the passage of Ida’s Law.

Gov. Kevin Stitt in 2021 signed the legislation into law, which directed the OSBI to secure funding from the U.S. Department of Justice to create a local Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons.

Morgan, a governmental affairs officer for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes who has spent the past two years advocating for greater federal funding opportunities for the OSBI, said state lawmakers should also appropriate dedicated funding for the agency to fully implement Ida’s Law.

What is Ida’s Law?

Ida’s Law was intended to improve coordination between law enforcement entities working on cases involving missing or murdered Indigenous people in Oklahoma, while also assigning a point person to work closely with the family members of victims.

Indigenous people face higher rates of violence than white people. Four out of five Native American adults have experienced some form of violence in their lifetime, with 56% of Indigenous women facing sexual violence, according to the National Institute of Justice.

The families of those who’ve been killed or who’ve gone missing often have to navigate a complex jurisdictional maze when seeking answers and help from law enforcement, advocates say.

The OSBI has assigned one agent to work part time as a liaison. Law enforcement partners working on such cases can also request the OSBI’s help at any time, said agency spokesperson Hunter McKee.

But McKee said the OSBI has not received any federal funding associated with Ida’s Law. Most Department of Justice grants of this kind are not available to state law enforcement entities, he said. Although the DOJ offers numerous grant opportunities each year, including funding for tribal initiatives, few grants are specific to the issue.

The Department of Justice’s press office did not respond to questions.

The original draft of Ida’s Law introduced in 2019 didn’t mention anything about seeking federal money for the OSBI to fund this new office until it was amended by a GOP lawmaker. At the time, the OSBI estimated carrying out Ida’s Law could cost up to $385,000 annually if three agents were assigned to the missing and murdered Indigenous persons office.

Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City, said the decision was made to seek federal dollars for the office because the Trump administration set aside grant funds for that specific purpose.

Oklahoma was also still recovering from a budget year in which most state agencies experienced cuts because of low oil prices early in the COVID pandemic, he said.

But Dollens, who co-authored Ida’s Law, said lawmakers should consider increasing OSBI’s appropriations to help the agency carry out the law.

“With our reserves in the billions, there’s no reason why a position — much less one that important — should be underfunded,” Dollens said. Oklahoma has more than $4 billion in state savings accounts, a record high.

Typically, most federal grants or other funding to address missing and murdered Indigenous people have been appropriated to tribes or the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Morgan said.

DOJ funding has also largely flowed to federal law enforcement entities, rather than those on the state level, she said. In 2021, the Biden administration created the Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help with unsolved cases.

Using new funding from the DOJ, Oklahoma’s U.S. Attorney’s offices in 2020 hired a coordinator to work with tribal, state, local and federal law enforcement entities to develop response protocols. This summer, DOJ announced a regional outreach program that will permanently place 10 attorneys and coordinators within various U.S. Attorney’s offices, including the northern district in Oklahoma.

Addressing the crisis

Morgan said the OSBI is doing well implementing Ida’s Law, but dedicated funding would allow the agency to hire more agents to work on Indigenous cases.

LaRenda Mogan is the cousin of Ida Beard, for whom Oklahoma’s Ida’s Law is named. Ida Beard — also a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes — went missing in 2015 and has never been found. (Photo by Kyle Phillips/For Oklahoma Voice)

She noted Ida’s Law requires the OSBI’s liaison to conduct law enforcement and community training sessions. Dedicated funding could help with that, too, she added.

Nonetheless, Morgan said she feels encouraged.

Since the passage of Ida’s Law, there seems to be a heightened awareness, resulting in a faster law enforcement response, Morgan said. There also seems to be greater coordination among law enforcement entities and more news coverage when Native Americans are killed or disappear, she said.

“There’s some people out there who say, ‘Well, nothing’s been done. I don’t see a change,’” she said. “But I do. We’ve had cases here in Oklahoma City that have been on the news of Native people that have been murdered. Their cases have been immediately investigated. They have found the murderer in less than a year, and (the case) is going to trial.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said although the OSBI has been unable to secure federal funding, his tribe has worked well with the agency’s liaison.

“We all have the same goals to solve cases and prevent future cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people,” he said in a statement. “Ida’s Law sets a precedent for collaboration that we can build on as we advocate for more federal funding.”

Josh Patzkowski, the OSBI’s new missing and murdered Indigenous persons liaison, said his job centers on building relationships with the tribes and providing training on key issues.

A member of the Cherokee Nation, Patzkowski was appointed to this new role in July, following the departure of the OSBI’s previous liaison. He is working to schedule domestic violence training sessions with several tribes and is reviewing the agency’s database.

Patzkowski said the most important part of his job is ensuring he can have an open and honest dialogue with victims’ families.

“Obviously, I want them to trust me,” he said, “and to believe that I’m going to do the best I can do and work hard to help them through the case and through conviction and whatever else comes through the courts.”

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Carmen Forman, Oklahoma Voice
Carmen Forman, Oklahoma Voice

Carmen covers state government, politics and health care from Oklahoma City for the Oklahoma Voice. A Norman native, she previously worked in Arizona and Virginia before she began reporting on the Oklahoma Capitol.