Senator Hatathlie to head task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People

Sen. Hatathlie has been appointed to serve as the chair of the task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. (Photo/AZSenate)

Sen. Hatathlie has been appointed to serve as the chair of the task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People. (Photo/AZSenate)

PHOENIX — Arizona State Sen. Theresa Hatathlie has been appointed by Gov. Katie Hobbs to serve as the chair of a task force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP).

Rep. Jennifer Jermaine was the previous chair of the MMIP committee, and Hatathlie was on the committee and proceeded her after she retired from the legislature to become a county judge. The committee issued 83 recommendations to address MMIP issues.

Hatathlie, who is Navajo, said the topic is nothing new, but needs to be dealt with better than it has been in the past.

“I’ve been part of that discussion for a while,” she said. “It’s an honor and a challenging path only because I’m speaking for people who don’t have a voice to ask these difficult questions.”

Hatathlie knows a number of individuals who have been either murdered or remain missing. She recounted how a woman from Dilkon went missing in the 1980s and after 37 years her body was recently recovered.

In another case, Jamie Yazzie from Pinon, went missing years before her body was recovered. Hatathlie’s sister worked with Yazzie at a clinic in Pinon and Hatathlie had met with her several times.

Hatathlie is also concerned about fraudulent cases at treatment facilities where people have been taken for drug or alcohol issues. In some cases the person did not have a problem, and in other situations, some of the people overdosed or were abused. She said too often these cases are considered closed.

“There were people from Tuba City who lost loved ones. It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “Families deserve answers.”

Hatathlie said inspections of these facilities and civil penalties for violations need to increase.

Hatathlie asked Hobbs to form this committee because of the tough political climate right now with a Republican majority legislature and a Democratic governor.

“I did not want this to get lost in the system, so I requested this of the governor,” she said.

Hatathlie and the task force will work with Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes along with the director of Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Jami Snyder, to eliminate the chain of command between the state legislature and governor.

“I’m letting them know that this is an epidemic that needs to be brought to the forefront to find solutions,” she said.

Hatathlie said it’s important that this is a task force — and not a committee — which means they can take action. She said the task force can take recommendations and have necessary conversations with various agencies and tribal members.

“We need to take action. We’re past the listening sessions,” she said.

Hatathlie said the task force can give assignments impacting policies, procedures and practices to address this issue.

Hatathlie, who comes from Coalmine Mesa north of Tuba City, has been a community activist on Navajo for more than 20 years. She served as unit director for the Tuba City Boys and Girls Club. She has also served for the last 10 years on the Diné Community College Governing Board.

Hatathlie earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from NAU. She is one of the co-founders of the Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund. She also served as the human resources director for Tuba City School District and projects specialist with the Navajo Nation Diné Youth.

“I’ve met many people and they bring their issues to me so I’ve taken those issues to the Navajo Tribal Council,” she said.

Hatathlie has also testified to the state Senate and House as well as Congress for many years.

“A lot have asked me to be in this position and I take it seriously,” she said.

Hatathlie said the pandemic showed the inefficiencies of government programs for Native Americans.

“There are longtime systemic problems,” she said.

One of the systemic problems is with recruitment from addiction treatment centers. Some Native Americans, including those without an addiction, have been involuntarily placed in treatment facilities so the facility can receive federal funding. Hatathlie has filed complaints to past governors, state attorney generals, and behavioral health agencies regarding this predatory behavior.

“This has never been addressed,” she said.

However, Hatathlie said since January some measures have been put in place to stop or mitigate these abuses.

Not all of the members of the new task force have been named, but when the group is complete they will participate in training covering conduct, ethics, confidentiality and other issues.

Hatathlie said she plans to work with the state attorney general to lay the groundwork and reporting for MMIW.

Last year, Hatathlie was able to get the state legislature to appropriate $2 million for MMIP so the Attorney General's Office could have a hotline answered by staff instead of computers. This money will also be used to hire a prosecutor and investigator to create an MMIP unit within the Attorney General’s Office.

“People deserve interactions for reports,” she said.

Hatathlie said she is collaborating with ASU Center Against Violence as they are helping with facilitating, organizing and researching MMIP.

She said the extent of MMIP on the Navajo Nation and other reservations isn’t known because the reporting data is not well organized. She said people report MMIW to law enforcement and it is either sidelined or not taken seriously, especially if it involves an addict. She said law enforcement often waits a day or two before investigating and that is often too late.

She said there is a stigma associated with drugs, alcohol and domestic violence that may hinder the process. She said MMIP is a complex issue as it involves jurisdictions, sovereignty, BIA and federal government.

“It becomes overwhelming, but it involves systemic injustices,” she said.

Hatathlie said stories are coming in every day, sometimes four or five times a day.

“There is a huge outpouring by individuals who want to have this discussion,” she said.

Hatathlie said a multifaceted holistic program is needed that includes judicial and jurisdictional answers.

She said counseling is needed for victims' families because they often don’t know where to go or what to ask.

“We need to build a tool kit that any tribe can use, and speak to law enforcement so they know what their responsibilities are,” she said.

For example, Hatathlie said law enforcement can call AHCCCS to see if an individual is getting services.

“Only law enforcement can do that,” she said.

Hatathlie said victims' families also need to communicate with law enforcement in cases when bodies are recovered. She said criminals need to be held accountable.

She said the first step toward prevention is for families to educate children when they are young. She said it falls on parents to help prevent bad things from happening.

“Intervention is so much harder then to address it from a prevention point of view,” she said.

Hatathlie said when children are exposed to alcohol or violence that is how they end up in that environment.

She said communities and schools have resources to help with prevention. She said schools have many positive messages that can help mitigate MMIP

She said grandparents, aunts and uncles should be the starting point, then schools and other groups. She said the adage is true “It takes a village.”

“You can’t say “It’s not my child,” she said. “You can take a little time and set a person on a path where they can prosper. It doesn’t cost anybody anything to install confidence and have that meaningful message.”

Hatathlie said communities know who their relatives are and if someone is out of place in the community.

Hatathlie is hopeful that the task force will be able to have individuals at the table who are solution oriented.

“I hope it all comes together and our voices are heard because everyone deserves dignity,” she said.

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