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State study IDs best practices in cases of missing or murdered Indigenous relatives

Every month, between 27 and 54 American Indian women and girls were listed as missing in Minnesota from 2012 to 2020.

ST. PAUL — Minnesota’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives office released a yearlong report highlighting the major themes defining and perpetuate the injustices of Indigenous people and identifying the system gaps prevalent in these cases.

Although they make up less than 1% of the population, Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people account for 8% of all murder victims in Minnesota, the office reports. Every month, between 27 and 54 American Indian women and girls were listed as missing in Minnesota from 2012 to 2020.

“Over time, Indigenous communities have come to expect unfair treatment, and therefore, they often mistrust law enforcement and experience strained or poor communication during the investigation of their loved one’s case,” stated Wilder Research researcher Nicole MartinRogers in a news release. “This report provides guidance for the MMIR office, law enforcement and related systems about key steps we can take in Minnesota right now to address this injustice.”

Nevaeh Kingbird, 15, was last seen on the south side of Bemidji in October 2021. Local, state and federal agencies are working together to find answers on this and other open missing Indigenous person cases.

The MMIR office partnered with Wilder Research in 2022 to conduct the comprehensive study of the federal, state and tribal level policy landscape. The work involved examining emerging best practices in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, identifying current issues in Minnesota and offering recommendations for addressing MMIR injustice.

“Research shows that Indigenous relatives don’t always receive an effective or just response from the system when they have gone missing or died under suspicious circumstances,” stated MMIR office Director Juliet Rudie in a news release. “Every person deserves the same swift and effective response regardless of their race or other characteristics. That’s why this report is so important.”

To conduct the study, Wilder Research reviewed literature and completed in-depth interviews and listening sessions with experts from around Minnesota. This included people with lived experience and family members of Indigenous people who are missing, or who died by murder or other suspicious circumstances.

The themes outlined are reporting and initial investigations of missing person cases; communication and alert systems; review and investigation of unresolved cases; death investigations; jurisdictional issues and government-to-government collaboration; data issues; victim and family services; prevention; and media reporting.

The report recommends key takeaways for MMIR office partners, such as the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Safe Harbor Minnesota and local and tribal law enforcement. Researchers stressed individuals within those agencies be properly trained, use best practices and follow state and federal laws. In addition, the report recommends law enforcement training programs, such as those outlined by the Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, incorporate MMIR topics under existing learning objectives.

The report recommends key strategies and solutions for the MMIR office to maximize its impact over the next three years, such as:

  • Improve the training of law enforcement and other officials to increase knowledge about, and use of, best practices in investigating missing persons and suspicious deaths. 
  • Enhance partnerships among all government and non-government organizations involved in preventing victimization, investigating cases and supporting families and communities affected by trauma. This is especially important for law enforcement jurisdictions that have some role in missing persons and suspicious death investigations in Indian Country, including the 11 reservations in Minnesota. 
  • Ensure immediate action by law enforcement, community and family. This means reporting of missing persons, along with appropriate and immediate follow-up by law enforcement. This also includes strengthening adherence to existing missing persons' laws (e.g., Brandon’s Law) and working with community-based organizations. 
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“The recommendations in this report will help the MMIR office prioritize where to focus our efforts as we continue to facilitate and implement the recommendations from the 2020 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force report,” Rudie stated.

“We consider it a privilege to partner with state agencies, law enforcement, victim service providers and the media in the years to come to incorporate these recommendations with the end goal of responding to MMIR cases swiftly and effectively.”

Officials said it is important to note the report focuses primarily on how these related systems respond once a person has gone missing or died under suspicious circumstances. It does not address the upstream causes of why so many Indigenous relatives are at risk of going missing or being murdered, including poverty and homelessness, substance use disorders, the child welfare system, the criminal justice system, domestic violence, and human trafficking.