‘Our work isn’t done’: Utah missing, murdered Indigenous people task force preps for report

Sep 2, 2023, 3:30 PM | Updated: 3:43 pm

OGDEN — Utah's Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Task Force appears to have a lion's sh...

A group of people gather in solidarity with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women of Utah organization ahead of the Women's March at Washington Square Park in Salt Lake City on Jan. 18, 2020. The task force is getting ready to release a new report investigating solutions to help solve an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous Utahns. (Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News)

(Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News)

OGDEN — Utah’s Murdered and Missing Indigenous Relatives Task Force appears to have a lion’s share of work ahead as it gets ready to release a new report investigating solutions to help solve an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous Utahns.

The task force has spent two years investigating the issues, including listening to hours of heart-breaking testimony from individuals whose loved ones have been killed or vanished — often without the closure of a conviction, solved case or return of their missing relatives. Both Utah and Salt Lake City rank in the top 10 cities and states with the highest number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the country.

The task force’s final report, which investigates the scope of such cases in Utah, is expected to be released this fall. A draft presentation of the report includes dozens of recommendations to improve how cases involving murdered and missing Indigenous people are handled and investigated. Those include:

  • Revising state law to prohibit waiting periods for missing adults and requiring preliminary investigation for all missing person cases where location and well-being are undetermined.
  • Standardizing policies and procedures for missing person reports across the state.
  • Working with tribes to establish policies for AMBER alerts and Endangered Missing Advisories (all but the Navajo Nation currently have to use state highway patrol or local county sheriff’s offices to activate alerts).
  • Expand the state’s cold case review team and its outreach to tribal nations and rural communities.
  • Training law enforcement on cultural issues specific to Utah’s tribal nations and on gathering accurate and complete information on race, ethnicity and tribal affiliation.
  • Improving consistency and quality of communication with families.
  • Increasing data sharing across different law enforcement agencies.
  • Providing financial support for tribal cultural revitalization and violence prevention program.

The draft report also highlighted issues like a lack of trust in law enforcement; limited resources and staff, especially in rural areas; jurisdictional issues and a lack of infrastructure like cell towers in rural areas that can make timely communication and emergency alerts difficult.

This is about finding gaps in the system so that we can make things better and we can make things whole.

– Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City

Task force members stressed during a review of the presentation Wednesday the importance of taking steps to ensure that the recommendations are actually implemented.

“Something that I see very quickly, in terms of those recommendations, is the need for there be one office, or one person within state government, who is gathering information and being the conduit between the state agencies and the tribes,” said Yolanda Francisco-Nez, who is Diné, or Navajo, and the executive director of Restoring Ancestral Winds. “There needs to be a person, an office that is going to be taking in this information and conducting some of this work and making sure that agencies who are named in this report are actually doing the work so that it isn’t sitting there for decades to come.”

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, added that the task force’s work needs to be extended a couple years beyond its current 2024 end date.

“This is a really, really important issue, and I just don’t know if we, as a task force, are done,” she said. “This is not a gotcha thing for anyone. This is about finding gaps in the system so that we can make things better and we can make things whole.”

One of those gaps is tribal involvement. Although researchers interviewed law enforcement, advocates, service providers, Indigenous communities and other experts, they reported limited success in connecting with tribal leadership in Utah.

Ruby Johnston, Restoring Ancestral Winds helpline coordinator, is not a member of the task force but urged the research group conducting the report to prioritize connecting with tribes.

“If the ways in which you’re reaching out to them aren’t working, then I think that should be addressed and changed. If it’s not working, then there needs to be a different route to take. It shouldn’t just be an end all, be all for that,” Johnston said. “I think if it comes from a different lens that is much more Native-oriented and much more from a place of holistic care and healing, that is something that folks are actually gonna be interested in interacting with.”

Related: Missing and murdered Indigenous women cases getting new attention

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‘Our work isn’t done’: Utah missing, murdered Indigenous people task force preps for report