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Heitkamp-McCain bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country passes U.S. Senate

Bipartisan legislation part of comprehensive approach to addressing crime & human trafficking issues in Indian Country
From Senator Heitkamp’s Office

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and John McCain (R-AZ) announced that her bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country has passed the U.S. Senate.

Heitkamp and McCain introduced the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2017 earlier this year to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country. Such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible, but currently such alerts in many parts of Indian Country are limited to tribal lands – if they exist at all. By making tribes eligible for AMBER Alert system resources, law enforcement in state, local, and tribal governments will better be able to coordinate to find and rescue missing or abducted children, particularly if they have been taken off of their reservation.

“Native American children are some of the most vulnerable children in the country, yet there isn’t an AMBER Alert system in much of Indian Country, and that makes it very difficult to recover children who have been abducted or who have run away,” Heitkamp said. “That must change, and that’s why I introduced this bipartisan bill with Senator John McCain to expand this lifesaving system to some of the most vulnerable children in our country – those in Indian Country. The Senate passing this bill is an important step forward, and I encourage the House of Representatives to pass it as soon as possible so the president can sign it in to law. This is part of a broader effort raise awareness and bring better systems of justice to Indian Country, and to give law enforcement agencies at all levels the tools they need to prevent crime and bring criminals to justice so we can keep all our communities strong and safe. Both this bill and Savanna’s Act which I introduced to help address the crisis of missing and murdered native women and girls would make important strides.”

“Last year, Navajo Nation was devastated by the abduction and murder of 11-year old Ashlynne Mike,” said Senator McCain. “In that high profile case, authorities did not issue an AMBER Alert for Ashlynne until the day after family members reported her abduction. According to FBI statistics, more than 7,500 Native American children are listed as missing in the United States today. We must protect the most vulnerable individuals in Indian Country, and this legislation is an important step forward in that effort.”

The House version of the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act recently passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. The legislation must now pass the full House before being sent to the president’s desk to be signed in to law.

Heitkamp has long been working to build a more robust response to addressing crime and human trafficking in Indian Country and of Native Americans. This week, Heitkamp launched a social media campaign using #NotInvisible to raise awareness about the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and bring it out of the shadows. Click here for video of Heitkamp discussing the initiative. Heitkamp has also featured the stories of missing and murdered women on her Facebook page to raise awareness about the crisis. Click here to read their stories.

In October she introduced Savanna’s Act to ensure North Dakota’s tribes have the information and resources they need to protect women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking. The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, and it has attracted strong bipartisan support. Companion legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives this week by U.S. Representatives Norma Torres (D-CA) and Tom Cole (R-OK)

In September 2013, Heitkamp led an initial hearing to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking, especially in Indian Country. Since then, Heitkamp has pushed for legislative action to fight human trafficking, playing a key role in introducing and passing bipartisan legislation on the issue in 2015 in the U.S. Senate, and continuing to introduce more bills on the issue to provide resources for health care providers to stop human trafficking and protect runaway and homeless youth from trafficking.

In September of this year, Heitkamp and a group of nine bipartisan senators called for federal agencies and organizations to provide specific training to federal government employees in Indian Country to spot, stop, and respond to human trafficking and domestic violence in the communities they serve. Click here to read the letter.

Building on her work to protect every Native child and community from criminals seeking anonymity on their lands, Heitkamp brought then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James B. Comey to Fort Berthold in 2016 to continue to press him on the urgent need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence and an improved federal response on the ground in Indian Country, as she had been doing for years.

As North Dakota’s former Attorney General, Heitkamp has worked to raise awareness about the need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence across Indian Country. Since joining the U.S. Senate, she has continued to call for a permanent FBI office in western North Dakota and Indian Country. There is now an FBI office in Williston and she continues to press for an office on tribal lands.

The first bill Heitkamp co-sponsored was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which she played a major role in pushing through Congress in 2013. Heitkamp worked to include a key provision in VAWA to address the continuing crisis of violence against women in tribal communities. The provision strengthens the existing programs and provides tribal governments the force they need to prosecute non-Indian perpetrators who commit these crimes on tribal land.

Through her Strong & Safe Communities Initiative, which Heitkamp launched in September 2014, Heitkamp has worked to address the emerging challenges in North Dakota as a result of the state’s population boom, including crime, exploitation, and trafficking issues in Indian Country.

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