Guest column: 'Savanna's Law" could help find missing children in Indian Country

On Aug. 19, 2017, 22-year old Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind was reported missing by her family. She was last seen in the early afternoon in her apartment complex, where she had been asked to help a neighbor model a dress the neighbor had been making. This seemly innocent request turns bizarre when it is taken into account the fact that Savanna was eight month pregnant and the neighbor was not.

Police searched the neighbor’s apartment on three separate occasions after the missing person report was filed, but found nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. The neighbors cooperated with the investigation, admitting to have seen Savanna on that day, but not since. Five days later, without saying why, police raided the neighbor’s apartment again, this time with a search warrant. They found a newborn infant who, through DNA testing, turned out to be Savanna’s. The baby, a girl, was in good health. There was no sign of Savanna though, including zero forensic evidence or trace of Savanna being in the apartment. Sadly, Savanna’s remains were found a week later in a nearby river. The official autopsy report stated the cause of death was “homicidal violence”.

This tragedy has shined a spotlight on what has been a known but unrecognized problem in this country affecting an overlooked minority — namely the uncommonly high rates of disappearances, murders and violent crimes committed against Native American women.  According to Congressional statistics:

American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times as likely to experience violent crimes — and at least two times more likely to experience rape or sexual assault crimes — compared to all other races.

More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women, or 84.3 percent, have experienced violence in their lifetime.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, homicide is the third leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women between 10 and 24 years of age and the fifth leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women between 25 and 34 years of age.

According to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report, United States Attorneys declined to prosecute nearly 52 percent of violent crimes that occur in Indian country.

Savanna was a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe of North Dakota. Her survivors believe her story may have turned out differently if she had not been a member of such a marginalized minority. Her family feels things may have ended differently if Savanna’s disappearance had been taken seriously from the time it was first reported, and the initial searches had been more than cursory.

To bring awareness and resources to the problem that exists in states across this country, a bill called Savanna’s Law has been introduced in the Senate this year. Democratic senators from New Mexico, North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota have sponsored a bill that will require the federal government to take a more active role in addressing and combating the needlessly high rates of violence experienced by Native America women.

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.

Sadly this incident is not isolated. Last year in New Mexico a young girl, 11 years-old, living in the Navajo Nation, was kidnapped, raped and murdered. The assailant, Tom Begaye, lured the girl and her younger brother into his van before driving them both out into a remote area of the desert near Shiprock Monument. Begaye raped and physically assaulted the girl with a tire-iron before abandoning her, alive and severely injured. The boy, who managed to run away, was able to describe Begaye to the police and the general location of where Begaye had taken them. Despite issuing a missing person’s report for the victim, an Amber Alert was not sent out until the day after the report was made. The victim died of her injuries before she could found. Many believe the victim’s death could have been avoided if news of her disappearance had not been delayed.

Before the introduction of Savanna’s Law in the Senate, Senator John McCain, (R-AZ), also introduced the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2017. The Senate bill was inspired by the tragic incident in New Mexico, but the larger problem underlying the need for this legislation is the 7,724 Native American children who have been reported missing, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Senator McCain’s bill would:

Implement a permanent program to help Native American Tribes assemble AMBER Alert systems for law enforcement agencies through the Department of Justice.

Require the DOJ to perform a need based assessment of the AMBER Alert capabilities on Native American lands.

Expand and improve the existing AMBER Alert systems on Native American lands.

Tom Asimou is a lawyer in Phoenix, Arizona that practices in the area of probate and trust litigation, and more recently litigation involving missing persons.  Caitlynn Mitchell is a Third-Year law Student at the Sandra Day O’Connor law school at Arizona State University.

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