Seventeen percent of missing persons cases recorded in Wyoming last year involved Indigenous people, state legislators heard last month.
It’s a “disproportionate number,” research scientist Emily Grant said, since Indigenous people only make up about 3 percent of the state population.
The imbalance continued this year, Grant noted, with 16 percent of missing persons cases recorded so far in 2022 involving Indigenous people.
The majority of missing Indigenous people in both years were females under the age of 18, Grant told the Wyoming Legislature’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations during a meeting last month.
Last year, 58 percent of missing Indigenous people were identified as female, Grant said, and the number has risen to 66 percent so far in 2022.
The data aligns with previous research showing a “similar trend” over the past 10 years, she added.
Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, asked how many of the missing minors had run away from home, as opposed to being “abducted,” but Grant said she doesn’t have “the contextual information” about the cases yet, so she can’t report on the “circumstances” surrounding each incident.
She plans to gather that “qualitative data” by “going and talking with family members, people in the community, and law enforcement.”
“That is really important information to keep track of,” Grant said. “That’s why I always push for going beyond the numbers.
“The numbers can tell a story, but the real context involves going and speaking with people in the community – the people that are responding to these issues, (and) the families themselves.”
The interviews will be conducted statewide as well as on the Wind River Indian Reservation, she noted, since missing persons reports are made in almost all Wyoming counties.
“It is not an issue that is confined to just the reservation,” Grant said. “This is an issue that affects everyone in Wyoming.”
Grant is conducting her research on behalf of the Wyoming Division of Victim Services as part of the Governor’s Task Force on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons.
DVS director Cara Chambers said her agency will “synthesize” the research into a “statewide plan” that aims to better serve affected families, in part by “making sure (that) law enforcement is fully aware of best practices when working with missing people.”
Wyoming Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, recalled the “moving testimony” the committee heard this summer from a “young woman … who described her efforts (to) try to feel supported and protected” by law enforcement on the reservation.
Her comments indicate that many reservation residents might “feel that they cannot talk about this (and) can’t make a report, or that if they do make a report to law enforcement they’re victimized again.”
“We all know that this is a statewide problem, but it has particular poignancy on the reservation, where we at least anecdotally think there’s a very large amount of sexual assault and other abuse that goes unreported,” Case said. “That’s anecdotal, but it connects into the missing people. It connects into the whole way of life out there. And you have people that are terrified.”
Wyoming Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, said part of the issue involves a lack of resources for federal law enforcement agencies on the reservation.
“When I checked with the FBI, I was able to visit with one investigator who says that he currently has 25 sexual assault cases that he’s investigating – and could have significantly more than that,” Larsen said. “He can’t handle that. So embarrassingly he says he has to prioritize.”
Kimber Janes Tower, the new executive director for Tribal victim services at Wind River Family and Community Health Care, said her agency has worked with 49 victims between July and September of this year, including people who have runaway or gone missing, people who have witnessed violence, and people who have experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and child sexual exploitation.
Her organization only documented one interaction with law enforcement during that same timeframe, she added, explaining that, even though “national best practice standards” call for victim advocates to work with law enforcement “from the onset of an investigation,” she can’t “assist” those agencies “unless I’m asked.”
“We cannot force our way into an investigation,” she said. “Law enforcement needs to tag us in.”
Her colleagues have “been in contact” with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the past, Janes Tower said, but “at this time I have not seen any reciprocal contact from them.”
She has also had “some contact” with the FBI and is working to “develop a better, more consistent manner of communicating with them and ensuring that victim services are equitably provided to every victim.”
“I have grave concerns that we are not providing equitable victim services in the state of Wyoming,” Janes Tower said. “On more than one occasion I’ve reached out for assistance and I’ve been told, ‘Well, it’s Tribal. There’s nothing I can do.’
“I don’t believe that’s true. We can all do more.”
Case proposed that the select committee work with Tribal officials to write a letter asking all law enforcement agencies that work on the reservation – including area police departments and the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office – to collaborate more with local victim services agencies and give a report on their progress at a future meeting.
Ellis – who was leading the meeting – asked state staffers to “start working” on a draft of the letter.
“I get really frustrated when I hear that too: ‘If it’s Tribal there’s nothing I can do,’” Ellis said. “That’s a very easy approach to a lot of these very difficult problems. …
“We have people coming to us asking for help, (and) that’s not something I feel comfortable dismissing so off-hand without at least trying to make a positive impact.”