Senator Heitkamp: We Must Do More to Protect Children in Indian Country

North Dakota U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp, center, at the “Amber Alert” Child Protection Symposium June 1 at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck. The training was attended by representatives of tribes from across the country. United Tribes News photo DENNIS J. NEUMANN

Published June 2, 2017

Senator Keynotes National Symposium on Keeping Children Safe on Tribal Lands, Combating Human Trafficking

BISMARCK, NORTH DAKOTA – Delivering the keynote address at a national symposium on protecting children and fighting human trafficking, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) today underscored the need for a comprehensive, community-wide approach to addressing threats to the safety of children living in Indian Country.

During a symposium hosted by the National Criminal Justice Training Center entitled, “AMBER Alert in Indian Country: Child Protection Symposium,” Heitkamp spoke with local tribal leaders and national experts in child protection on the urgent need for her bipartisan AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act, which she helped introduce with Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona to expand child abduction – or AMBER Alert – warnings in Indian Country. Such alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children in order 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.

Heitkamp also reinforced how sustained challenges related to human trafficking compound threats to children’s safety, particularly in Indian Country where federal resources can be harder to come by. Last spring, Heitkamp brought then-Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James B. Comey to Fort Berthold to discuss the urgent need for a permanent federal law enforcement presence and an improved federal response on the ground in Indian Country, and is continuing to fight toward diverse solutions to combat human trafficking crimes, particularly on tribal lands.

“We cannot fend off threats to our children – within or outside of tribal lands – without an all-hands-on-deck approach to their safety,” said Heitkamp. “When a child in Indian Country goes missing today, critical AMBER alerts that help rescue and save abducted children in the rest of the state aren’t currently as integrated within tribal law enforcement departments on the reservation – if available at all, making Native children more vulnerable to predators like sex traffickers. By expanding AMBER Alert resources like my bipartisan bill would do, we can make sure abductors know they can’t hide from the law – that local and tribal law enforcement will be working together to protect every child in and outside of Indian Country. Today I’m proud to join forces with leaders and experts from North Dakota and around the country who are deeply dedicated to protecting the livelihoods of our Native children and eradicating sex trafficking, sexual exploitation, and other threats too many of our Native youth currently face. I’ll keep fighting toward the comprehensive solutions Native youth, and our state needs to keep our children and our communities strong and safe.”

Heitkamp is committed to addressing the comprehensive challenges Native young people face, including threats to their safety addressed at today’s symposium. Earlier this month, Heitkamp announced that her new Commission on Native Children – created by her bill that became law last October, the first piece of legislation she introduced as a U.S. Senator – would be funded in the congressional spending deal to keep the federal government running. The Commission will tackle the chronic issues facing Native children – including poverty, substance abuse, and domestic violence – and offer real solutions to address them.

Heitkamp has been pressing President Trump, members of his Administration’s Cabinet, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly appoint members to the 11-member Commission  comprised of individuals specializing in juvenile justice, social work, as well as mental and physical health. So far, Dr. Tami DeCoteau of Bismarck, Russ McDonald of Bismarck’s United Tribes Technical College, Anita Fineday of the Casey Family Programs’ Indian Child Welfare Program, as well as Carlyle Begay of Arizona and Melody Staebner of Fargo have been appointed to serve on the Commission.

As part of her efforts to protect Native young people as well as North Dakota’s broader communities, Heitkamp has become a leader in the U.S. Senate in the fight against human trafficking. In September 2013, Heitkamp led an initial hearing to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking right in our own backyard, including in North Dakota. Since then, Heitkamp has been an integral player in the legislative charge for action to fight human trafficking, playing a key role in passing in the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan legislation. Now law, the bill includes stricter punishments against traffickers who transport victims across state lines, and legal protections from her Safe Harbor bill to make sure victims are not treated as criminals. In addition to introducing bipartisan legislation to give health care providers – including doctors, nurses, and social workers – training to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking, Heitkamp is continuing to push the Senate protect runaway and homeless youth, some of the most susceptible targets of human traffickers, and successfully secured landmark anti-human trafficking protections for children in schools in the No Child Left Behind reform legislation.

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