U.S. Senate Passes Bill Addressing Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

Savanna's Act would require better and more data collection, law enforcement protocols in MMIW cases

By Molly Priddy
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. Beacon File Photo

The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a bill aimed at battling the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States, requiring better crime data reporting and collection from law enforcement and creating guidelines for responding to such cases.

Savanna’s Act, named for Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind who was brutally killed in North Dakota in 2017, was introduced by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, and co-sponsored by 17 other senators, including Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester.

LaFontaine-Greywind, a 22-year-old member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota, disappeared in August 2017 and was murdered during a fetal abduction in which a couple lured her, eight months pregnant, to their apartment with a request for sewing help, then cut the unborn baby from her womb while she was still alive.

Brooke Lynn Crews was sentenced to life without parole for the murder, and William Hoehn was sentenced to life with a chance for parole.

Indigenous women go missing and are murdered at an alarmingly high rate, with more than 80 percent of Native American women experiencing violence. On some reservations, Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.

There is no single comprehensive database tracking these cases so there’s not a set number of how many women are actually missing, and the current legal framework surrounding these cases is a quagmire of jurisdictional issues among tribal police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state police.

“All of us must work together to end this epidemic,” Tester said in a prepared statement. “Savanna’s Act would ensure we all have access to the most comprehensive data regarding these crimes and make sure law enforcement agencies are on the same page as they investigate this unacceptable epidemic.”

The bill requires the U.S. Department of Justice to update the online data entry format for federal databases relevant to cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people to include a new data field to input the victim’s tribal enrollment or affiliation.

It also creates standardized protocols for law enforcement and the justice system to serve as guidelines for law enforcement involved in these cases, develop protocols to investigate those cases, meet certain requirements to consult with tribes, and provide more training and technical assistance to tribes and law enforcement agencies.

The bill must pass the U.S. House and be signed by President Donald Trump before becoming law.

Tester plans to lead a hearing on Dec. 12 in the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and gather testimony on the sources of the epidemic and how to end it. Tester’s office said the hearing would be streamed on the senator’s Facebook page on Dec. 12 at 12:30 p.m. MST.

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