Witnesses at Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on trafficking of Native Americans, from left: Gretta L. Goodwin, Tracy Toulou, Jason Thompson, Nicole Matthews and Cindy McCain. Photo: SCIA

Department of Justice won't collect data on Native human trafficking victims

The Department of Justice continues to resist calls to collect more data on trafficking of Native Americans despite pressure from advocates for Native women and key members of Congress.

According to the department, federal authorities prosecuted just two trafficking cases in Indian Country between 2013 and 2016. Only one of them resulted in a conviction.

The number pales in comparison to the 1,000-plus cases that were prosecuted in other jurisdictions during the same time. It also flies in the face of a consistent stream of reports which show that Native Americans, especially women and girls, are victimized at rates far higher than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States.

Yet the department isn't able to explain the disparity because federal agents aren't required to determine whether a trafficking victim is Native American. And it doesn't plan on collecting that data any time soon.

"If it's voluntary information, great, but we're not going to mandate that," Tracy Toulou, a descendant of the Colville Tribes who serves as the director of the Office of Tribal Justice, told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday afternoon.

According to Toulou, finding out whether a victim is Native American could end up hurting Native Americans. Service providers that receive federal funds shouldn't be forced to collect the data because he said it would have a "chilling effect" by making Native people more reluctant to come forward.

"We don't want to do anything that's going to keep a victim from coming to our victim services providers and getting the services they need," said Toulou, who is a career employee, not a political appointee of the Trump administration, which did not send a more higher-level official to the long-planned hearing.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing on "The GAO Reports on Human Trafficking of Native Americans in the United States"

The explanation stood in contrast to the stance taken by another federal agency. Jason Thompson, the deputy director of the Office of Justice Services at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said he hasn't heard concerns about collecting data on Native trafficking victims.

"BIA-OJS, as of 2014, does collect that information in our basic crime reporting," said Thompson, who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. Like Toulou, he is a career employee of the federal government.

The lack of data limits the ways in which the federal government can help victims, according to Nicole Matthews, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition. She said it was "disturbing" to learn that, officially, only 2 Indian Country trafficking cases were prosecuted by federal authorities between 2013 and 2016, because her research indicates a widespread problem, both on and off reservations.

"There is a need for culturally specific programs -- by and for American Indian and Alaska Native women -- to specifically address sex trafficking," said Matthews, who is a citizen of the White Earth Nation.

Of the 45 Department of Justice grant programs that can address trafficking, only 2 are geared towards tribal communities, she noted. The low level of support makes it harder for service providers to reach out to Native victims, she said.

"If you ask someone, are you a victim of trafficking, are you Native American, and you don't have services to follow up, then it can potentially cause more harm," Matthews told the committee.

Cindy McCain, the co-chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council, also believes more data will help, not hurt, victims. She said service providers need to be able to tailor their programs to the communities where they work.

"I think you would find our victims perhaps a little more willing to talk about where they are from," said McCain, who is the wife of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), a former two-time chairman of the committee.

In recent reports, Government Accountability Office has called on the Department of Justice to collect data -- "where possible" -- on Native trafficking victims, said Gretta L. Goodwin, a director at the agency, which serves as the watchdog arm of Congress. Such basic information can help justify the need for more grant programs and other resources, she asserted.

"If you don't have the data, it can sometimes be really difficult to determine what services can be provided to a particular population," Goodwin said

Members of the committee agreed with the need for additional data. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota), who served as North Dakota's top prosecutor for 8 years, said trafficking in Indian Country goes significantly under-reported, which in turn contributes to a lack of resources.

“It’s clear that the federal government can and must do a better job of tuning into the true extent of the challenges that can endanger our most vulnerable in Indian Country," said Heitkamp. "We’ll keep working to sound the alarm bells both on the ground and in the halls of Congress until every Native community is protected by the full extent of the law, and have the resources they need to stay safe from these hideous crimes.”

Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee, is taking a step forward in providing more resources with the introduction of S.1870, the Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment Act, or the SURVIVE Act. The bill, which has bipartisan support, mandates a tribal set-aside from the Crime Victims Fund at the Department of Justice.

“It is critical for tribal communities, which experience some of the highest crime rates in the country, to have greater access to victim resources under the Crime Victims Fund,” Hoeven said. “The SURVIVE Act will increase these vital resources and provide tribes with the flexibility to determine the programs and services that best meet the local needs of their communities. This will help ensure crime victims have the support they need to heal.”

The set-aside would amount to 5 percent of the fund if the bill becomes law. That's significant because existing data shows that barely 0.7 percent of the money gets to Native victims, said Hoeven, who also supports the call for the Department of Justice to collect more data.

"Without knowing the extent of the problem, it is difficult to adequately address it," the chairman said at the hearing.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Oversight Hearing on "The GAO Reports on Human Trafficking of Native Americans in the United States" (September 27, 2017)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Action Needed to Identify the Number of Native American Victims Receiving Federally-funded Services (April 6, 2017)
Information on Cases in Indian Country or that Involved Native Americans (July 24, 2017)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Report:
Racial and Ethnic Differences in Homicides of Adult Women and the Role of Intimate Partner Violence — United States, 2003–2014 (July 21, 2017)

Join the Conversation
Related Stories:
Meskwaki Tribe conducted undercover sex trafficking operation at Iowa casino (September 27, 2017)
Wife of Sen. McCain on witness list for hearing on trafficking in Indian Country (September 25, 2017)
Cronkite News: Senate committee takes up bill to combat online sex trafficking (September 20, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs reschedules hearing on human trafficking (September 19, 2017)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs cancels business meeting and hearing (July 26, 2017)
Report confirms Native women suffer from high rate of homicide in nation (July 24, 2017)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee schedules hearing on human trafficking (July 17, 2017)
More data needed to address human trafficking in Indian Country (April 19, 2017)
Attorney General vows help for public safety in Indian Country (April 18, 2017)
Zinke cites 'heart-breaking' crime rates against Native women (April 18, 2017)
Native women push for more action on missing and murdered sisters (February 16, 2017)
Trending in News
More Headlines