‘They just didn’t care’: families of missing Native women call out indifferent police

Monica Fast Horse texted her 26-year-old daughter on a Thursday evening in August to ask when she would be home. It wasn’t fear that drove her to it, it was simply what they always did: they checked in with each other.

Fast Horse and her daughter Jenna Charging Crow lived together in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, along with another one of Fast Horse’s daughters and Charging Crow’s five-year-old daughter, Jenelle. Fast Horse, a member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, helped raise her granddaughter, and Charging Crow served as primary caretaker for her mother as she dealt with the medical complications of end-stage kidney failure.

Earlier in the week, the pair had been excitedly preparing outfits for Jenelle’s upcoming first day of kindergarten. Fast Horse said she remembered Charging Crow’s amazement that her daughter was going to be starting school in a matter of days, and was also looking toward her own first day at a new job at Wendy’s.

That Thursday evening, Charging Crow went to her friend’s apartment, about a three-minute drive away. She was supposed to be out just a few hours, so all Charging Crow wore on her feet were slippers,, according to Fast Horse.

But as the night went on, Fast Horse’s curiosity became concern. By the next day it had morphed into fear.

“She would always, always check in with me,” Fast Horse told the Guardian. “I swear even in the past when we’ve had our differences and we’ve argued and stuff she would always call me or text me and say, ‘Mom, did you eat today?’ or ‘did you and baby eat today?’ or ‘how’s my baby doing?’”

By the afternoon, Fast Horse said she called the Sioux Falls police department and filed a missing person’s report. About two hours later she said officers came to her home, took her statement and then went to the apartment complex her daughter had visited.

For five agonizing days the family searched the area, covering stores and street poles with missing persons flyers and emailing and calling local news organizations before Fast Horse heard from the detective assigned to her daughter’s case.

Her daughter has now been missing almost two months, and she has never heard back from any of the news organizations she contacted.

“I never thought this would ever happen to me,” she said. “I’ve seen other posters, I’ve seen other notices, but I never thought it would happen to my kid. And going through this with the police department and people not helping you and not caring about you or not worrying about that.”

Sgt Robert Forster with the Sioux Falls police department said he couldn’t speak directly to the case because it was an active investigation, but said that the detective on the case had been “working it diligently”.

When asked about the amount of time that elapsed before Fast Horse was contacted, he explained that in some cases there may be a lag time because officers received an incorrect phone number for the family, or the detective was off for the weekend, or it came down to having to prioritize based on the day’s caseload. This year, he said, 10 detectives will be investigating as many as 800 cases, so “we have to prioritize those.”

There has long been a devastating epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in the US. Yet too often their cases receive little to no news media attention and their families can face doubts and delays from law enforcement agencies. The tragic case of Gabby Petito, whose body was discovered late last month in a national park in Wyoming after a rapid-fire law enforcement response and national news media frenzy, only served to emphasize the disparity that often exists when a white woman is missing compared with when an Indigenous woman is reported missing. Although Petito’s and Charging Crow’s cases are very much distinct, and each is heart-wrenching in its own way, Petito’s family has received some tragic answers about what happened to her. Fast Horse and her family’s desperate search continues.

Kerri Colfer, who is Tlingit and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center’s senior native affairs adviser, said she had noticed many instances where law enforcement officers have victim-blamed Native women and been slow to investigate or declare them missing.

“That often means that the families end up leading the searches for their missing relatives, before law enforcement even tries to get involved,” she said. “And obviously, that is retraumatizing for families.”

In 2018, the Urban Indian Health Institute released a report documenting hundreds of cases of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across 71 US cities. More than 150 of the cases they found were not included in law enforcement records.

Its authors determined that more than 95% of the cases in the report had not received coverage by a national or international news agencies.

Dr Patty Loew, professor at Northwestern University’s journalism school and director of its Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, said the lack of coverage is driven by many factors, including the misclassification of Native women, the geographical separation between reservations and urban areas where news agencies are often based, and reporters naturally wanting to “stay within their cultural comfort zones”.

“I think news prefers people that sort of stay within the system and people of color who are assimilatory and want equal rights – that’s something we understand,” said Loew, who is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. “But I think reporters don’t really understand sovereignty, and people who have a political identity that exists outside the mainstream.”

Since the Petito case, many news agencies have suddenly jumped into reporting on missing Native American women and have highlighted the disparity, bringing attention to specific cases of missing Indigenous people.

The effect, according to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA, has been at least eight Indigenous women and girls being found. One had been missing for about a year.

“It shows representation in the media matters,” said Deborah Maytubee Shipman, the organization’s director and founder. “We try so much to bend into what everybody wants to see instead of what we are. And for the first time I think we’re being recognized for what we actually are, a person of color and not some other fourth class.”

On 15 September, Janice Enriquez, a member of the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, filed a missing person’s report for her 16-year-old daughter, Bluujaye Enriquez, in Sacramento, California. The teenager, who is biracial, Native and Hispanic, had been at her boyfriend’s home. Her parents did not want her to see him, Enriquez said. When her father came to get her, Bluujaye took off without her phone or money.

Enriquez said after five days went by and she hadn’t heard from her daughter, and no detective had been assigned to the case, she tried calling the investigations division. She left a voicemail. She said she heard from a detective on 23 September, the day after a local news station aired a story about Bluujaye – following several failed attempts to get coverage from a handful of other local stations.

“I didn’t feel like I had a police force on my team,” she said. “I felt like they just didn’t care. They shouldn’t look at it like, ‘oh another kid’; ‘oh there’s so many’. It doesn’t matter. We shouldn’t be missing any.”

On 24 September, law enforcement told Enriquez that Bluujaye might be at a local youth shelter. But just a few days later, she had run away from the facility, according to Enriquez.

“It’s sad when you’re looking for your child that there’s no help,” she said. “People will say there’s all this help, but there is no help to search for your kid.”

Enriquez said she finally received a call from her daughter on 8 October on a blocked number. She said she’s fine, but Enriquez said she’s still very worried about the teenager’s safety.

In response to questions about how the investigation was handled and why days went by before Enriquez heard from a detective, Sgt Sabrina Briggs, with the Sacramento police department, said in an email: “When the report was received officers began a follow-up investigation which included attempting to contact known associates, checking possible locations, contacting local hospitals and resource providers to develop leads. All preliminary investigative leads were exhausted and there were no signs of foul play.”

In April, Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary in US history, announced the formation of a new unit centered on investigating missing and murdered Native Americans. In a statement she described the violence against Indigenous people as a “crisis that has been underfunded for decades”, saying that about 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native people across the country are listed as missing in the National Crime Information Center.

Colfer explained that there are actually many more missing Indigenous people that are not reflected in official numbers, due to such things as reporting problems and misidentification.

She said while she was hopeful Haaland’s work could help bring attention to missing Indigenous people, she believed it would take much more than one approach from a single federal agency. It will take more resources at the federal, state and tribal levels devoted to searching for missing Native people, more communication between law enforcement and these families, and also an expansion of tribal jurisdiction through the Violence Against Women’s Act, she said.

“We need all of the federal government to communicate on this and really make this a priority,” she said. “And so, I’m hoping that we see success from that specific unit, but that we also see commitment to this issue from all areas.”

Over the past several weeks, there have been a number of reported sightings of Charging Crow, including one by law enforcement. Police found her in a vehicle with a man in late September. Fast Horse said he is a registered sex offender. When the police told her to call her mother, she asked for her phone number, which Fast Horse said was very concerning given that her daughter long had it memorized.

The family has heard from some in the community that Charging Crow is being held and used to transport drugs because she owes someone a debt. When one of Fast Horse’s other daughters was able to get into her Facebook and Twitter accounts, she found that every few days Charging Crow logs in from a different neighboring state.

Last week, Fast Horse was in the hospital for dialysis treatment when she received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was Charging Crow. She was crying and told her she missed her, and her daughter, but throughout the 1 minute and 55 second call, Fast Horse said her daughter sounded stilted and she kept hearing someone whispering next to the phone.

Fast Horse asked her when she was coming back. She said her daughter replied: “They said that I was gonna be able to go home in a couple of weeks … Now I’m not sure.”

When Fast Horse relayed all of this to the detective, she said he asked her if she might be out doing drugs and partying. She said her daughter would have never done that.

Fast Horse said having her daughter disappear has been extraordinarily painful. But feeling like she doesn’t have any help from law enforcement or the media has made it much worse.

“As a Native woman, usually we don’t cry in front of people – that’s how I was taught because I’m older. We don’t usually show our emotions to a lot of people, you know you just keep going, you get up and you keep going,” she said.

“But this thing with my daughter gone has brought me to my knees.”

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