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Carving a Path Towards Justice: Trafficking Survivor and Activists Speak on MMIW Crisis

Updated: February 15, 2020 02:44 PM

The crisis with missing and murdered indigenous women is shedding light on a national, local, family and human issue that has impacted many families and innocent victims.

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Efforts are being done to combat the crisis on missing and murdered indigenous women(mmiw).

Efforts are being done by community members like Jessica Smith. She is a student at UWS that’s pursuing a degree in legal studies and first nation studies. She’s an activist for missing and murdered indigenous women and spends time researching and speaking out about it. It's something that hits close to home as a Native American woman.

"I’m able to tell my story and research these issues and help raise crucial awareness, that awareness aspect is crucial,” said Smith. “A lot of things that I have personally gone through directly correlate with the reasons and issues of why many women are going missing and getting murdered.”

She's determined to make a difference and help victims through her experience and work on this important issue. She knows all too well what it’s like to fall prey into the trafficking world.

"I fell for a sex trafficking scheme and trap. I know exactly how easy it is for young women who are vulnerable to get took up into that lifestyle,” said Smith. “Thankfully I was one of the ones who made it out, there's thousands that don't.”

Smith grew up in the Fond du Lac reservation. She said she was surrounded by poverty and domestic violence. She was raped when she was 16-years-old.

The traumatizing experiences she went through have pushed her to a path of change and growth. She’s on a mission to put an end to the crisis.

"Four out of five young native women and girls experience sexual violence in their lifetime,” said Minnesota Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein. She is a member of the Minnesota MMIW Task Force.

Members of the task force like Kunesh-Podein say many cases are solved too late. Minnesota ranks ninth nationally in missing and murdered indigenous women.

Efforts from local organizations like the Native Lives Matter coalition have been raising awareness. They host a number of events throughout the year, including the MMIW March. On Friday community members marched for justice. 

"One of the first cases that I worked with when I was with the St. Louis County Sheriff's department was the homicide of Trina Langenbrunner, who happens to be our chairman’s sister,” said Roger Smith, a council member of Fond du Lac and retired police officer.

Smith said he grew up with Trina and her family. He added that it was a hard case for him to take on.

“For 12 years we had to search to find out who the suspect was and take that person into custody,” said Smith. “It does kind of hit home, things can change for any family at any time.”

Smith is also a member of the Minnesota MMIW Task Force. He said local efforts like Fond du Lac's Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking Task Force are working to reduce trafficking with tribal communities. He expressed that throughout the last couple of years they've had a tremendous gain in addressing the issue.

“We have our advocates, we have our police department that's looking at the sex trafficking issue. We finally established a position with an investigator,” said Smith.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order to form a national task force. The Justice Department was supposed to provide $1.5 million to improve law enforcement response and develop a database. So far Smith says that money hasn't been received.

“That was supposed to help to hire a person to address those issues so that's why it's imperative that we get that funding and start that position,” said Smith.

Looking for an answer and holding on to hope is Sheila St. Clair's family. The Duluth woman went missing almost five years ago. She hasn’t been found.

"We want to bring her home, her family misses her, as a community we miss her," said Shawn Carr, a community organizer for Idle No More, a grassroots advocacy group.

Alyxis Feltus is the director of ‘Mending the Sacred Hoop’ a statewide tribal domestic violence coalition. She says the deaths and disappearances of native women and children stem from a variety of reasons, some that go back generations.

“So it starts basically you know, from hundreds of years or more of historical trauma and historical violence portrayed against native communities," said Feltus.

Feltus says some of the other reasons are sex trafficking, poverty, domestic violence, substance abuse, racism, and sexism.

Feltus and others say these issues haven’t been given the attention they need and as a result, justice hasn't been served.

“A lot of times prosecution and even the law enforcement response doesn't happen. Communities feel like they're disposable. They don't call it invisible populations for no reason,” said Feltus.

One solution advocates propose is a more unified system of investigating, communicating and prosecuting between tribal, state and federal authorities.

“Communication has got to be one that is seamless and one that works in both ways. We're finding that's where some of the log jams are,” said Roger Smith.

Supporters hope to pass the Savanna Act, which would help to improve data collection. Advocates say many cases are currently underreported.

“In 2016, there was roughly 4,000 cases of missing and murdered indigenous women, and only 106 were logged within the Department of Justice,” said Jessica Smith.

Advocates believe better reporting will help in getting to the root of the problem. 

“We need immediate action to reduce the high rate of violence against Native and Indigenous people. I helped pass Savanna’s Act out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in November 2019. We’ve been waiting for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to bring it up for a vote. He should do that as soon as possible,” said Sen. Tina Smith.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, every two minutes a child is being victimized for sexual exploitation. Sen. Smith, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced the bipartisan Human Trafficking and Exploitation Prevention Training Act.

It would prevent the human trafficking and exploitation of children by providing grants critical for training students, parents, teachers, and school personnel to understand, recognize, prevent, and respond to signs of human trafficking.

Rep. Pete Stauber hosted a MMIW and trafficking forum in January at Itasca Community College. He said it helped provide crucial information on what needs to get done.

"We want to take this information and make sure we put legislation forward and invest in these programs," said Rep. Pete Stauber.

Advocates also say that education is crucial in preventing abusive relationships, identifying red flags, and ultimately, saving lives. They also say additional funding is needed for resources and support to help victims and families.

“Our tribal communities are resilient and they're coming back,” said Feltus.

Advocates like Jessica say we still have a long way to go. She’s a leader who has been a voice for victims and their families, carving a path towards justice.

“When more and more people are talking about it and your voices get louder, that's when it's the most important to stand together in solidarity,” said Jessica Smith.

The Minnesota MMIW Task Force is encouraging those affected to share their stories through written or public comment. They say this input is important in helping identify barriers and providing the proper resources.

The task force has upcoming meetings where people can do this. Click here to learn more on how to provide comment.

To reach a non-governmental organization for confidential help and information, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-3737-888 or the StrongHearts Native Helpline at 1-844-762-8483.

Copyright 2020 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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