"Oh Child Where Are You?" Tribal Child Abduction Symposium Looks to Ancient Traditions to Help Find Missing Native American Children in the Future

The Tribal Child Protection Leadership Forum and Symposium began with a traditional Native American blessing that included the words, “Oh child where are you?” The events took place in Scottsdale, Arizona, July 19-21, 2016, and included representatives from more than 25 tribes who shared lessons learned and experiences with AMBER Alert Coordinators, Missing Persons Clearinghouse Managers and Child Abduction Response Team (CART) members.

“We are all here with the goal of protecting children,” said Robert Listenbee, Administrator for the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. “The children in Indian Country are overlooked and underserved.”

Listenbee said technology has increased the victimization and trafficking of Native American children and noted American Indian and Alaska Native children are exposed to violence more than any other minority in America.

Lynnette Grey Bull
Lynnette Grey Bull

Recognizing the Risks

Director of “Not Our Native Daughters” Lynnette Grey Bull said the biggest problem is that people do not believe sexual trafficking and exploitation is happening in Indian Country. “I have not been to a tribe where it was not happening,’ said Grey Bull. “You won’t see a pimp with a big purple hat come on to the reservation. Anywhere you see poverty, you will see trafficking.”

“Not Our Native Daughters” is a non-profit organization focusing on ending human trafficking in tribal communities. Grey Bull shared startling statistics for Native Americans.

  • A 50% higher rate for sexual assault for Native American women
  • The highest suicide, rape and murder rates for all ethnicities
  • 14% have no education and 20 percent do not have indoor plumbing
  • The lowest life expectancy - between 47 and 55 years old
  • The highest rate of death from tragedy, accidents, alcohol and drug use

The U.S. Department of Justice found 70 percent of the violence was caused by non-Native perpetrators.

Arizona State University professor Dominique Roe-Sepowitz has also been studying the unique and critical challenges for Native American sex trafficking victims. The university’s study interviewed victims ages 13 to 42.

  • 60% of victims’ parents never married, 59% of family members have drug and/or alcohol problems, 54% of victims ran away and 75% had family members in jail
  • 63% of victims had been molested, 46% had been raped and 28% experienced emotional abuse
  • 58% of victims were addicted to alcohol or drugs, with 90% taking drugs and 50% believing they drink excessively
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz

“Trafficking victims do not leave, because they have nowhere to go, they have no income and they need shelter,” said Roe-Sepowitz. She emphasized that we need to develop a collaborative way to help Native American victims of sex trafficking.

“You can’t go anywhere without people talking about human trafficking,” said longtime human trafficking victim advocate Cindy McCain. “It used to be no one talked about it or that it even exists.”

McCain called trafficking an “epidemic as deadly as Zika or Ebola.” She said many children from the reservations are ending up in other countries. McCain added that the problem is exasperated by a culture that demeans women and children.

“Real men do not buy little girls,” McCain remarked. “Pimps are not cool. They are not ‘good-old’ boys. They are pedophiles and sex offenders and need to be treated as such.”

AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance (AATTAP) Program Administrator Jim Walters said he first learned about the problem while working as a police officer. “I remembered meeting a woman who said, ‘Give me the drugs I want and you can have sex with my daughter.’ The girl was 14.” Walters explained law enforcement at that time was just beginning to recognize and understand the problem of human trafficking and must be trained and prepared to better and more fully understand the scope and complexity of the problem in tribal communities and across the U.S.

Geri Wisner and Cindy McCain
Geri Wisner and Cindy McCain

Tribal Challenges

Tribal communities have additional barriers in prosecuting child sex abuse cases. Geri Wisner is the Tribal Prosecutor for the Pawnee Nation Court and Wyandotte Tribe of Oklahoma, and the Executive Director for the Native American Children’s Alliance (NACA).

“I look at our tribal codes and there is no language to deal with child sex abuse and no tribe has a law against human trafficking,” said Wisner. “If we are truly sovereign, it is our responsibility to make the laws that can be enforced so we can have justice.”

Wisner recommended taking the Native American oral tradition and writing it into law. “We cannot wait for the federal government to fix all this,” she said. “If we write it down, we can write it in our own way with our own traditions and sense of justice.”

Valerie Bribiescas is a member of the Navajo Nation and a detective with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office in Arizona. She said non-Indian investigators often do not understand the culture, and as a result can offend victims who are already reluctant to talk.

“A lot of our victims go home and do not want to come back and testify,” said Bribiescas. “They do not want their families to know they are part of trafficking and want to leave it be. It is going to be difficult to get victims to come to court.”

Bribiescas challenged Native Americans to teach others about the culture so more victims can be helped.

“Our girls are being utilized over and over and that is why we have to work with outside entities,” she added. “We have to learn from each other.”

Additional Resources

The U.S. has 61 Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Forces, yet no tribal teams. However, the White Mountain Apache tribe has created the first tribal ICAC affiliate.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Jerry Barker oversees the Arizona ICAC and has met with 19 tribes to educate members about what resources are available. He is bringing equipment, training, funding and additional manpower to help the tribes become part of the solution.

“The cases are the same on the reservation as you would see in an expensive neighborhood,” said Barker. “When we find child pornography suspects, they are in every community. The only difference is the location.”

Former Montana Law Enforcement Officer and AATTAP Consultant Derek VanLuchene urged tribal representatives to come together and make a plan, form a Child Abduction Response Team (CART), become affiliated with ICAC and assign a main contact for AMBER Alerts.

“Have conversations with the community about the overall protection of children,” he said. “Identify what you have and what you need. Knowledge is power.”

Trafficking survivor Jeri Jimenez summarized the mission ahead with a quote from former Cherokee Tribal Chief Wilma Mankiller, “We must trust our own thinking. Trust where we’re going. And get the job done.”