Justice Department Boosts Efforts to Solve American Indian and Alaska Native Missing Person and Unidentified Remains Cases
National Missing and Unidentified Persons System Will Ensure Cases Are Current and Complete
November 24, 2021
WASHINGTON – The Department of Justice today announced a commitment of $800,000 to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, specifically to increase the program’s capacity to provide outreach, investigative support and forensic services to cases involving American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The investment is in response to recommendations from the federal Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives, known as Operation Lady Justice. It also supports the executive order issued by President Biden on November 15 “to reduce violence against Native American people, and to ensure swift and effective Federal action that responds to the problem of missing or murdered indigenous people.”
“Our research tells us that American Indians and Alaska Natives experience violence at rates well above those of many other groups, a disparity that is sadly reflected in reports of missing and unidentified Native Americans,” said Jennifer Scherer, Acting Director of the National Institute of Justice, the division of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs that manages NamUs. “We look forward to using these new resources to bolster NamUs and help investigators solve these difficult cases and bring answers to families.”
Operation Lady Justice was created in 2019 as a multi-agency effort to enhance the operation of the criminal justice system and address the concerns of American Indian and Alaska Native communities regarding missing and murdered people, particularly women and girls. Among other charges, the task force was directed to expand the use of NamUs, a DOJ-supported national repository for case information. The funds are made available from OJP’s Bureau of Justice Assistance through a transfer to NIJ.
“Every instance of an American Indian or Alaska Native reported missing or found murdered is an issue of vital public safety concern, not to mention a matter of great personal distress for that person’s loved ones and friends,” said BJA Acting Director Kristen Mahoney. “We hope that this new investment of resources helps provide information to resolve these cases in a manner that helps bring answers and ensures that justice is served.”
NamUs employs regional program specialists nationwide, who provide training, technical assistance and support to individuals with missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases. Since 2017, NamUs staff have provided training and outreach to American Indian and Alaska Native communities through more than 50 events and webinars. To encourage tribal law enforcement participation, the NamUs system is pre-loaded with information on more than 300 federally-recognized tribal law enforcement agencies so officers can quickly access cases and share information. To further the efforts of the program specialists and support their interactions with victims and families, OJP’s Office for Victims of Crime is developing trauma-informed resources for NamUs personnel. OVC’s resources can also support families of crime victims who are recovered through NamUs.
“Given the tragic history of trauma and marginalization experienced by native people, the disappearance, and certainly the violent death, of an American Indian or Alaska Native is cause for deep concern and an impetus for immediate action,” said Marcia Good, Executive Director of Operation Lady Justice. “I am very pleased that this new investment will allow NamUs to continue to help provide information that could resolve these difficult cases and bring answers to the families of missing or murdered persons in tribal communities across the country.”
This new funding supports DOJ’s commitment to review unresolved cases and improve information sharing. NamUs is prioritizing resources to ensure that all American Indian and Alaska Native cases in the database are as robust and complete as possible. This funding supports updates to case information that can include data regarding tribal enrollment or affiliation, whether missing persons were last known to be on tribal land or resided on tribal land prior to their disappearance, and whether unidentified decedents were found on tribal land. Any information found lacking will be obtained and entered to increase the chances of case resolution.
Furthermore, all identified American Indian and Alaska Native cases will be reviewed to determine if any additional forensic testing is needed. If a case is found to require additional testing, NamUs staff and partners will facilitate applicable testing and collect additional information from all relevant parties. This facilitation may include outreach to the original investigating/submitting agency, the medical examiner/coroner, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation local field office.
The ultimate goal for ensuring that all forensic testing is complete is twofold:
1) To verify that all relevant identifiers such as fingerprints, dental records, tattoos, and scars are captured, coded, and uploaded into the appropriate government database; and
2) To ensure that optimal DNA profiles and relevant family member DNA are collected and uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).
Monthly updates on American Indian and Alaska Native cases are available at: https://namus.nij.ojp.gov/library/reports-and-statistics.
More Information about Operation Lady Justice is available at: https://operationladyjustice.usdoj.gov/.