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Sold for Sex: Senate Committee Investigates Human Trafficking of Native Women and Children

Suzette Brewer

Senators call for better data collection and more effective collaboration between federal agencies in addressing sex trafficking.

On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) heard testimony on the findings and recommendations of a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examining the growing problem of human trafficking in Indian Country and among Native Americans, one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States. 

“Human trafficking is a truly despicable activity aimed at exploiting vulnerable people, usually women and girls,” said SCIA committee chair Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND) in his opening remarks. “A difficult crime to detect, human trafficking is often underreported due to a multitude of factors. The invisibility of this crime has led it to become a multi-billion dollar illicit industry worldwide. Indians are considered to be one of the most vulnerable targets for trafficking. American Indian and Alaska Native women suffer sexual violence at the highest rate, per capita, in the country.”

As Congress’ independent investigative agency, the GAO had been tasked with evaluating all available federal data on human trafficking in Indian Country and among Native Americans in the general population, including the frequency with which law enforcement agencies have encountered it, the services that are available to victims, demographic information, efforts to increase prosecutions, and other federal initiatives, according to the report.

Dr. Gretta Goodwin is the director of the Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the GAO, and the lead author of the agency’s report. At Wednesday’s hearing, she testified that while federal agencies maintain data on investigations and prosecutions of human trafficking in Indian Country, they do not collect data on whether the victims are Native American. The lack of data collection, she said, makes it difficult to provide services—or even identify—a population that is all but ignored in the fight against human trafficking.

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Additionally, Goodwin’s research indicated a vast disparity in prosecutions of human trafficking-related offenses that occurred in the general population compared to those in Indian Country.

For example, in the years 2013 through 2015, there were over 6,100 federal human trafficking investigations resulting in approximately 1,000 prosecutions in the general population. In the fiscal years 2013 to 2016 in Indian Country, however, there were 14 federal human trafficking investigations resulting in only two prosecutions.

The hearing also laid bare the difficulties federal agencies face in both cooperation and in the collection of information for purposes of grantmaking.

“If you don’t have the data, it can sometimes be really difficult to figure out what services need to be provided to a particular population,” Goodwin testified in response to questions from Hoeven. “So we made the recommendation that the Department of Justice start collecting data on human trafficking victims and, where possible, start collecting data on the number of Native American victims that were being served by the service providers.”

Hoeven then asked Tracy Toulou, director of the Office of Tribal Justice in the Department of Justice (DOJ), why the data was not being collected. Toulou responded that the service providers receiving federal grants had balked at being required to provide data on American Indians. 

“Our primary focus is on the victims,” replied Toulou to a visibly skeptical Hoeven. “Our victims service providers who work with these people every day have said [providing data on ethnicity] would have a ‘chilling effect’ and that is why we’ve said it’s voluntary information, but we’re not going to mandate that from our grantees.” 

“We recognize and understand the issues around confidentiality,” responded Goodwin. “But we do believe that to better target your services, it’s important to know who you are serving. Also, it’s an oversight issue. If you’re getting a grant, if you have money, more than likely, the agency is going to want to know who you’re serving … and, if [the money] is going to the right community.”

The lack of hard numbers from the agencies were also telling. In his testimony before SCIA, Jason Thompson, assistant director of the Office of Justice Services (OJS) in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said that tribes reported an “increase” in prostitution and human trafficking on reservations and Native-owned businesses, but did not give any specific numbers in regards to how much of an increase.

But it was Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who provided one of the most powerful testimonies of the hearing. Before the committee, McCain talked in detail about her efforts to combat the scourge of human trafficking on Indian reservations both in her home state of Arizona and across the country. She referred to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, for example, as a “hot bed of trafficking.”

“Victims are mostly Native American women and girls transported to the region specifically for sex trafficking,” she testified. “Many of these victims are under the age of 18―children being sold for sex, an organized crime of child abuse and rape.”

McCain also testified that Native American girls are sold for a high price on websites like BackPage.com, a classified ad website which she alleged knowingly promotes the sale and abuse of Native women and girls, who are kidnapped, sold, and transported to other countries in Asia and the Middle East. Ultimately, said McCain, they disappear, never to be heard from again.

“I have found that Native Americans are largely overlooked as victims,” she said. “One of the major impediments to prosecuting individuals and criminal organizations is the lack of victim services designed by and for Native victims …. However, cultural sensitive victim assistance programs can and do empower women and children to breach the shadows of this horrific underworld.”

During the hearing, Hoeven announced that he is introducing several pieces of legislation aimed specifically at improving public safety in Native communities. A reauthorization of the Tribal Law and Order Act would require DOJ to collect data specifically on American Indian and Alaska Native victims of human trafficking.

The Securing Urgent Resources Vital to Indian Victim Empowerment (SURVIVE) Act of 2017 would increase assistance for Indian victims of crime. The bill extends Crime Victims Fund totaling $150 million in resources to Indian tribes through a fair and competitive grant program that would provide tribal communities with the flexibility to determine the programs and services to best meet their local needs.

Additionally, members of the SCIA recently co-authored a bipartisan letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, and Jonodev Chaudhuri, chair of the National Indian Gaming Commission, urging that the federal agencies bolster their training and education efforts among their employees to identify and respond to human trafficking and domestic violence in Indian Country.

“We must work together to ensure that Native victims of human trafficking get the support they urgently need, and to provide federal and law enforcement agencies with enough resources to keep Indian Country safe. But the federal government could be doing more now to help Native victims who are slipping through the cracks,” said Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), SCIA vice chair. “Federal agencies should do all they can to collect and monitor data on human trafficking in Indian Country. And doing so, they should be held accountable for working with tribal governments to end human trafficking and to make sure these data gathering efforts do not jeopardize victim confidentiality.”

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