New bill funds task force to address Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic in Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News) – For the first time in Utah, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and LGBTQ+ epidemic is being addressed on Capitol Hill.

A new bill proposed by Representative Angela Romero would form a task force to look into the issue if passed by lawmakers and signed by the governor in the upcoming legislative session.

Back in February, ABC4 News featured a Sandy family who spent the past 35 years with no answers as to who killed their daughter, sister, aunt, and mother, Priscilla Lee. She was ambushed in her home on the Native American reservation and then murdered.

Lee’s case is one of hundreds of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases that have remained unsolved for decades. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, Salt Lake City ranks as the 9th highest city in the nation for these cases. Utah ranks as the 8th highest state.

“This didn’t happen overnight and this is important. This is first-nation people. These are individuals and communities who have been here forever and a lot of the time, we’ve neglected those voices,” said Rep. Romero. “This is the first step to address an issue that’s been around from the creation of our country.”

Advocates said the epidemic stems from a long list of issues including lack of quality data, under-reporting, racial misclassification, distrust in law enforcement, poor record-keeping protocols, long wait times from first responders, and the involvement of multiple jurisdictions.

“Part of the reason we’re putting this task force together is to bring all those entities together to find a solution. It’s easy for us to work in silos and if we’re not working together, we’re never going to tackle this issue,” said Rep. Romero. “It’s complicated because we’re dealing with a sovereign nation, state government, local government, and federal government. But it’s about healthcare, access to services, and basic fundamental rights.”

Contrary to popular belief, she said the majority of perpetrators of violent acts against Native women are non-Native. Offenders of crimes committed on Native American reservations often flee to avoid prosecution.

“Another stereotype out there is that most Native Americans live on the reservation when we have a huge number living in urban settings. So this is not just a small-town Utah issue. This is also an urban city, Salt Lake City issue as well,” said Rep. Romero.

She went on to say, “This also goes forward into a much more systemic issue that doesn’t only impact people who are indigenous but all of us as a community. It’s domestic violence and sexual assault. But members of our indigenous communities experience it at a higher rate.”

On Tuesday, Rep. Romero and advocates presented a draft of the bill to the Native American Legislative Liaison Committee. She said she sponsored the bill to give the Native American community a voice.

“I think there’s been a huge burden and as with many communities who are marginalized, they often feel like their voice is silenced. So as a policymaker, I wanted to make sure their voice was heard loud and clear,” she said. “I think it’s about time we address this issue. For me, this task force is to get the answers that we need. Let’s look at data. Let’s look at trust.”

The bill would provide $40,000 to fund the task force, consisting of 15 people ranging from tribal members to survivors.

If passed, the task force would have until November 2020 to come up with a report that identifies current or proposed institutional policies and practices that are effective in reducing gender violence and increasing safety of indigenous women, girls, and LGBTQ+. They would also have to include recommendations for improvements in the criminal justice and social service systems for preventing and addressing the epidemic.

“This is complex. Are we going to solve it with a task force? No. But what we can do is we can look into the issue and identify the areas that we need to focus on and how that relates to gender violence,” said Rep. Romero.

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