Utah may soon have a task force dedicated to studying violence experienced by Native American women.
According to the United States Department of Justice, American Indian women face a murder rate that is more than 10 times the national average. It is particularly a problem in Utah, which ranks eighth in states with the highest number of missing or murdered indigenous women cases.
This year, Utah lawmakers are trying to address that violence. Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, is sponsoring a bill that would create a task force aimed at studying violence against indigenous women that would compile a report for the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
“Native American women are at a higher risk than any other demographic when it comes to sexual violence and domestic abuse,” Romero said, adding that the task force would “identify some systemic issues” and give recommendations for how the state can do “more preventative work.”
Looking at law enforcement records, state and national databases, social media, and news reports, the Urban Indian Health Institute identified 506 cases of missing or murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across 71 cities. Of these cases, 66 were tied to domestic and sexual violence.
In Salt Lake City, which is one of the cities at which the Urban Health Institute looked, there were 24 cases identified.
The institute notes that these numbers are “likely an undercount” due to “poor data collection by numerous cities.”
One victim of violence in Utah is Maranny “Marena” Hatalie Holiday, whose neighbor, Timothy Lee Smith, shot and killed her on the Navajo reservation in San Juan County in 2015 after a property dispute, according to District of Utah Court documents. Smith admitted to tying a rope around Holiday’s ankles and dragging her body to a hiding place under a tree. She was 62.
Part of the problem, Romero said, is that so many different agencies are involved in investigating violence against indigenous women, which can create “gaps in communication.” If a crime happens on a Native American reservation, the investigation can involve tribal police, local police, and state and federal law enforcement.
“And so we need to find a way to ensure that all these entities are connecting and working together so that people aren’t falling through the cracks and that we bring voice to an issue that is serious enough that we have to force a task force,” Romero said.
House Bill 116 would create a task force comprised of legislators, law enforcement officials, a University of Utah researcher, a tribal representative and a “representative of a victim advocate organization service Utah’s Native American population.”
It would also include a Native American woman who has experienced sexual or domestic violence herself. Romero said it is essential that someone who has been “directly impacted” be on the task force and influence the conversation.
“A lot of times when task forces are comprised, (they don’t) include the people that are directly impacted by what we’re trying to identify,” she said. “So, for me, it was really important to have Native voices and to have a balance of law enforcement … and individuals who are trying to do preventative work in this area.”
The federal task force that studies violence against indigenous women, which President Donald Trump created last November, has been criticized for not having enough input from Native Americans.
During a House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday on the Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency that oversees the task force, Rep. Greg Stanton, D-Arizona, said tribal voices should be included.
“We know that sound policy recommendations are created when directly impacted people are at the table sharing their experiences and giving their input,” said Stanton, whose state ranks third in violence against Native American women.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said he agreed that it is important to “hear directly from tribal leaders,” adding that the FBI had met with Navajo Nation officials to discuss the issue.
“We are trying to engage directly and hear from them,” Wray said.
The floor sponsor of Romero’s bill, Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, whose district covers the Navajo Nation and part of Utah County, said in January that he was supporting the bill to bring attention to a “big issue” affecting his constituents.
“The main reason I’m doing it is because I represent the Navajo district,” Hinkins said.
The task force would receive a one-time appropriation of $40,000 that would go toward staffing the task force, according to Romero.
Romero said she hopes the task force will help give state lawmakers a comprehensive understanding of how violence impacts Native American women in Utah, and provide the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee with a road map for how to implement policies to prevent future violence and give law enforcement agencies the tools to solve cases.
The main goal of the task force, she said, would be “to identify where the gaps are and to issue a report to the law enforcement committee about what those gaps are” in able to “ensure that we’re doing justice” in the state.
“Will we solve everything? No, but it’s a starting point of where to point us as the Legislature,” Romero said.
The Salt Lake City lawmaker said creating a missing and murdered Indigenous women task force is her primary goal this year.
“Out of all the legislation I’m running this session, it’s my top priority,” she said.