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Policy Update: Amendments to the Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives

By Gina Lopez

My takeaway from the Colorado Judiciary Hearing for SB23-054 left me thinking about the violence impacts to our Indigenous communities and families. One after another, families of relatives lost in the past weeks, month and year here in Colorado was overwhelming to hear out loud. I hope that these words and frustration echo in the State Capitol well into the future and reverberates in our ancestors’ hearts.

There was nothing new to how courage was met in this building among our lawmakers, after laying our traumas out to be heard and hopefully understood the response was typical. Blame was being passed around.

One of the amendments asked for an additional staff of the MMIR Office that would provide advocacy support to MMIR families and it was suggested that the addition of supportive advocacy services would duplicate already existing advocacy issued from the local prosecutor’s office or law enforcement. Again, another emphasis on the jurisdiction and whose case this relative belonged to should be more important the in-the-moment response and support that the MMIR Taskforce has been responding to since even before the passage of SB22-150.

An important clarification that was sorely needed in this discussion to amend SB23-054 was the distinction between systems-based and community-based advocacy services. Prosecutors or DA’s offices and local as well as federal law enforcement agencies, can have victim advocates who serve as liaison’s between the prosecutor or law enforcement and the victim or their family. These types of advocates are critical in the building of a case and supporting victims or their families in order to proceed in the investigation and prosecution of the crime. Community-based advocates are different than those systems-based advocates because the objective in their support services is to follow the decisions and lead of the survivor. They are not in place to support the investigation or prosecution of a case; the outcome of the case is not the concern of community-based advocacy services. For those of us who have been practicing community-based advocacy we understand an important, critical piece of our role is that we can hold confidentiality in what is shared between us and survivors. We cannot be made to testify what was shared in our interactions with victims or survivors to prosecutors or law enforcement because we understand that there are other aspects to what survivors and victims navigate in their experiences that do not include our systems.

Especially in MMIR cases, there can often be cultural and traditionally adhered to needs that families have in order to navigate their relative’s loss or situation. There are historical layers of trauma that Indigenous families carry that need to be honored in the advocacy services they require.

Mental health, suicidality, and avoidance of police are valid responses to the historical and cultural realities of supporting Indigenous survivors of crime and their families as well as communities. These are just as valid as domestic violence, intimate partner violence, sexual violence, kidnapping or trafficking. The more practiced and culturally aware advocate, understands the historical and cultural layers. These are the layers that the MMIR Taskforce acknowledges in our responses to MMIR and when families find their way to us, we know that we are holding generations of impact in this one story but we know that, like our history, the stories will continue to pour into our hands and hearts.

We established an Office to be the central location of this understanding and support; our Taskforce and bill coalition required an advisory board for this Office to have at its disposal to be able to provide a culturally sound response to MMIR. This Office is supposed to cross educate partners and law enforcement agencies, statewide, in this important cultural competency. In SB 23-054, we were only including those pieces that the Judiciary committee reviewed and approved in SB22-150 but were removed at the final hour in the House committee.

The issue of MMIR in Colorado was always going to be a huge but necessary undertaking but our goal was to embark on that change together, stand together and learn together to make sure that our State was going to do better for MMIR. The Colorado Department of Public Safety wanted to focus on their successes, the implementation of the alert system: MIPA (Missing Indigenous Person Alert) that the MMIR Taskforce helped to design that is still failing our Indigenous communities by including concerning language like “evading law enforcement” implying this missing Indigenous relative was choosing to runaway or worse, indicating that this may be a relative involved in criminal activity. This is a problem because it minimizes the crisis that this relative may be in and lessens the possibility that this person would be looked for with the urgency that is afforded missing non-Indigenous children or youth.

We all have a lot of work to do and the MMIR Taskforce understands that the work must continue and that we will have to keep organizing our communities, supporters and coalition to keep our systems accountable and support families and our relatives. As of this blog, SB23-054 sits in a holding pattern while the Senate Judiciary committee is holding off voting at this time.