As a combat veteran who spent many years serving our country, I am deeply alarmed about the Petito case. As a proud voice for Native American women’s rights, I am compelled to speak up.
The story of Karen Hillegas Petito, a fellow Native American woman who was killed by a Mexican serial killer, highlights the challenge and injustice faced by Native American women. Since being reported missing on Dec. 15, 2002, Karen’s story has been another tragic reminder of the perils of missing Native American women.
Before Karen’s body was discovered, her disappearance came to the attention of law enforcement. Although she had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, officials at the time didn’t know she was being held against her will, or that Petito, who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico with her parents as a teenager, was being forced to perform sex acts against her will.
But at no point during these past 14 years did Karen’s story catch the attention of any agency working to end violence against Native women. Petito was likely one of several Native American women who were held against their will and murdered. Between 2010 and 2015, NAMI-DC investigated 275 of these cases, per the U.S. Census Bureau’s definition of a missing Indian or Alaska Native female.
Recently released FBI statistics show that Native women are 11 times more likely to be homicide victims compared to the general population. However, the FBI data does not include data on murders by non-Native people.
The federal government consistently has failed to protect Native women from this epidemic of violence. It has, in fact, done the opposite. In just two years, the FBI had closed 94 percent of the cases of missing Native American female victims. Yet for the tragic case of Karen Hillegas Petito, officials were never contacted to assist in finding Petito.
At the heart of the problem is the federal government’s refusal to adequately protect Native American women from abuse. As I explained when I launched the Congressional Native American Women Caucus a year ago, Native American women often are victims of physical, sexual and even economic abuse. Because they are more vulnerable and less able to access resources than other groups, Native American women are at higher risk for being victimized and, even when they are abused, are less likely to receive services that could prevent it from occurring.
The “Native American Women Caucus” has launched two new efforts, designed to help resolve the gaps in protection for Native American women: a National Plan of Action and an Indigenous Women Implementation Task Force, aimed at tackling the disproportionate rates of violence against Native women. In addition, I introduced a comprehensive bill, the Native American Women’s Safety Act, which would create a hotline to report crimes against Native American women and make resources available for more of these organizations. The bill would establish a regulatory framework for compliance to local law enforcement to ensure that Native American women’s safety is protected in the jurisdictions where they reside.
These are the principles I have advocated for, and I remain committed to them. The challenges for Native American women are too real to be ignored. Let’s move forward toward a resolution.