The United States has a problem with missing persons. More than 600,000 individuals are reported missing every year.
For law enforcement, social service agencies, and families, identifying and finding missing persons is challenging. A few of the uncertainties that complicate solving missing persons cases include, “Who qualifies as ‘missing?’”, “When should law enforcement become involved?”, “Is the missing person a victim of homicide or another violent crime?”, and “Is the person missing by choice, and will they reappear on their own?” And the questions vary, depending on whether the missing person is an adult or a child.
Another complicating factor is that some groups of people are more likely to go missing than others. The challenges of reporting and investigating missing persons cases may be exacerbated among Native American missing persons primarily due to jurisdictional issues and a lack of policies, coordination, and relationships between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement agencies, as well as racial (mis)classification when entering the cases into databases.
Research shows that some social conditions in tribal communities in Nebraska may contribute to the high rates of missing Native American adults and children. These conditions include:
- Endemic poverty.
- High rates of domestic abuse of women.
- High levels of substance abuse.
- Relatively high crime rates in many Native American communities.
- Geographic isolation of many Native American communities from criminal justice and social service resources.
- A lack of communication and coordination between tribal law enforcement agencies and their non-tribal counterparts in federal, state, and local jurisdictions, and the jurisdictional maze faced when reporting a person missing on or near tribal land.
To improve communication between tribal and non-tribal justice agencies so that those agencies’ policies and practices are a better match for the realities of life in those communities, NIJ-funded researchers at the University of Nebraska Omaha:
- Analyzed data on reported missing persons cases in Nebraska.
- Identified the prevalence and context of missing Native American persons there.
- Engaged Native American communities directly in missing-person research and solutions.
Researchers used existing data and collected new data to examine the scope of Native American persons in Nebraska who are missing or were murdered. From that analysis, researchers aimed to:
- Identify barriers to reporting and investigating cases of missing or murdered Native American women and children in Nebraska.
- Identify areas to build partnerships across agencies and tribal communities in order to increase reporting and investigating of missing Native American women and children in Nebraska.
- Make recommendations for better access to justice.
This article reports on findings from this study and its implications for research, policy, and practice for missing murdered Native American women and children in and beyond Nebraska.
Mixed Methods Research Contributes to Conclusions
The study used two distinct research approaches, quantitative and qualitative methods , to gain knowledge and insights on the scope and nature of the missing Native American persons issue in Nebraska.
Several sources of existing data were used, including:
- Data from three missing person databases pulled at four separate times. Databases included the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs); the Nebraska Missing Persons List (NMPL), and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
- Adoption and foster care data.
- Supplemental homicide reports from the FBI.
- Missing person policies from 51 Nebraska law enforcement agencies.
Researchers held listening sessions with five tribal communities in four Nebraska locations. The listening sessions included tribal and non-tribal participants, including law enforcement, tribal leadership, and victim service and non-profit organizations.
Interviews were held with 25 tribal and non-tribal victim service and social service staff and allied criminal justice system personnel and with five law enforcement officers, to explore barriers and challenges to reporting and investigating missing persons.
The Scope of Missing Native American Persons in Nebraska
The team examined missing person data from the three databases at four points in 2020: January 20, March 31, June 31, and October 31.
Overrepresentation of Native Americans
Native American and Black Nebraskans were consistently overrepresented among missing persons in the state by about 3 to 4.5 times their representation in the state population.
Native American individuals made up from 4.3% to 5.9% of Nebraska’s missing-person population, depending on the time interval, but only 1.5% of the state’s overall population. The state’s missing-person population was 19.1% to 23.6% Black, even though the overall state population was just 5.2% Black.
White individuals, in comparison, comprised from 61.2% to 66.8% of Nebraska’s missing-person population, but 88.1 % of the overall state population.
A Young Person’s Predicament
Native American missing persons in Nebraska, on average, were in their early twenties; the majority were from 13-18 years old (ranging from 67.5% to 78.9% over the four time periods). This was true at each time point.
Boys under 18 were the most likely to be missing of all groups among Native Americans in Nebraska at each time point. However, the percentage of missing Native American boys decreased from the first to last points in time the data were checked. In contrast, the percentage of missing girls increased, from 21.6% of Native American missing persons cases on January 20 to 35.7% on October 31.
Foster Care Is a Factor
The team identified foster care as a factor in missing persons cases, particularly for Native youth. A higher percentage of Native youth in foster care (2.1%) were identified as having run away from their foster-home placement than white, Black, or Asian youth.
Resolution for Cases of Missing Native Americans
Resolution rates for Native American missing persons in Nebraska were higher than for overall missing persons cases in the state. For example, 68.4% of Native American missing persons cases identified on January 20 were no longer listed as missing just over two months later, on March 31.
Many of the Missing Resurface
Although there is a common assumption that missing persons are typically victims of violence, many resurface without having experienced a known violent incident. According to the report, case resolution rates for Native American missing persons in Nebraska were higher than for missing persons overall in Nebraska.
The study measured missing-person status and rates at four distinct time intervals. Of the Native American missing persons cases identified at Time 1, 68.4% were no longer classified as missing at Time 2. Although no cases were resolved from Times 2 to 3, during the height of the COVID-19 epidemic, 50% of the missing persons cases identified at Time 3 were resolved by Time 4.
That means that by Time 4, of every 100 Native American missing person cases reported at Time 1, only about 16 of those cases remained unresolved missing person cases.
An extra effort was made by the researchers and their agency partners to identify any unknown cases of Native American missing persons in Nebraska. But requests by both Nebraska State Patrol and the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA) at community listening sessions, as well as research by the NCIA project coordinator, did not uncover any unreported cases of Native American missing persons.
Resolved cases in the Nebraska study were not homicides, the researchers found. None of the Native missing persons identified from the Nebraska missing persons clearinghouse or national databases were connected to a crime. Of the 64 unique Native missing persons in Nebraska identified across the four time intervals, none were linked to a criminal investigation for any violent crime, such as homicide, or non-violent crime, according to the Nebraska State Patrol.
Why Do Native American Persons Go Missing?
The team analyzed data from the community listening sessions to learn about what communities believe contributes to missing persons cases. The factors they listed include:
- Domestic violence.
- Substance abuse.
- Mental health challenges.
- Lack of affordable housing or homelessness.
Barriers to Reporting and Investigating
The team asked Nebraska law enforcement agencies whether they had a policy on missing persons cases and to provide a copy to the research team. Of responding agencies, 69% had a missing person policy. Of those with a policy, there was wide variation on its application to juveniles, the time it took law enforcement to make an incident report, and the demographic information that was collected.
The team also interviewed Native American community members about barriers to reporting and investigating missing Native people. The barriers they identified include:
- Uncertainty about how and when to report a missing person and whether community members can access national missing person databases without contacting law enforcement. (By law, anyone can access the NamUs database of missing, unidentified, and unclaimed individuals. Anyone can add a person to NamUs, subject to law enforcement verification.)
- A lack of communication and relationships between federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement, and between law enforcement agencies and tribal communities.
- The perception by community members that nothing will be done if they report missing persons or that reporting will have negative consequences.
Although not specifically a barrier, community members voiced concerns that systemic issues such as poverty, isolation, and substance use may be related to “going missing.”
Native community members also identified the following access barriers and issues related to the availability of services for Native American families of missing persons. The main issues they identified were:
- Lack of communication between different types of law enforcement.
- Victim fear of being revictimized.
- Stereotype-informed beliefs among law enforcement that Native Americans with substance abuse or other problems are not really missing.
- Lack of understanding of the criminal justice system on the part of victim service providers or victims.
Finally, service providers identified potential barriers from a service perspective. These barriers included:
- Lack of collaboration between law enforcement, victims, families, and service agencies.
- Lack of resources among small tribal agencies.
- Lack of trust between service provider clients and law enforcement.
Partnerships to Increase Reporting
During the community listening sessions, the study team asked the community to talk about partnerships. The community listed the following partnerships to develop:
- Partnerships between tribal and non-tribal law enforcement, as well as non-traditional allies such as tattoo artists, casinos, and convenience stores.
- Partnerships around community education on how to report missing persons.
- Partnerships around education regarding how to use NamUs.
- Strengthened partnerships with social service, legal services, and victim aid agencies to identify and address underlying social conditions related to missing persons cases.
Lessons Learned From the Tribal-Researcher Partnership
The research team reported three success stories regarding engaging Native communities in research:
- Tribal leadership buy-in and engagement.
- Building relationships between the Nebraska State Police, researchers, and tribal community members.
- Tribal community members’ engagement in voicing their concerns and suggesting improvements for the criminal justice response to missing native people in Nebraska.
The research team, in agreement with NIJ science staff, determined that the study design leading to these successes is replicable. Therefore, Justice Department officials can replicate the Nebraska study’s design in other jurisdictions to improve the system’s response to missing persons.
One key takeaway from the research, according to the team’s study report, was that research going forward on Native American missing persons, to be effective and authentic, must respect the culture and traditions of the participating tribe or tribes and ensure they are active partners in the research, to be authentic and effective.
The team also reported the following challenges: COVID-19 restrictions on interactions, disentangling “missingness” from larger social problems, and turnover in key partnerships.
The researchers made three general recommendations to apply lessons learned from the project:
- Ensure that research projects going forward respect the culture and traditions of the tribe.
- Keep the community involved in research to engender trust and participation.
- Design the project in a way that will directly benefit the Native community if they participate.
The report also recommended initiatives to advance the response to missing or murdered women and children in three substantive areas:
- Replication and extension of research in additional states.
- Tribal and non-tribal law enforcement data collection and collaboration.
- Enhanced awareness of reporting options and mechanisms to Native communities and service providers.
The persistently high percentage of Native American women and children on missing persons lists reflects both systemic social problems in Native populations and long-standing communication disconnects between Native and state and local law enforcement and service agencies.
Many Native Americans who go missing in Nebraska eventually are found alive, the report data established. But isolation and other issues leave missing Native American women and children off the radar of agencies and resources that could support them.
Engaging Native American community members and leaders in research concerning their communities is a critical component of getting these communities involved. This approach not only builds mutual respect between investigators and participants but can also lead to higher value study results.
As the research team pointed out, the Nebraska study could light the way for other states with significant Native American populations to examine the scope and nature of their missing Native persons issue and articulate possible partnership-driven solutions.
Sidebar: NIJ’s Tribal-Research Capacity Building Grants
This project was funded under “NIJ’s Tribal-Researcher Capacity Building Grants” initiative, which addresses White House and Department of Justice policy priorities. Through this initiative, NIJ has provided small grants to fund applicants that wish to both (1) initiate new and innovative research projects involving federally recognized tribes (or tribally based organizations) and (2) facilitate a new tribal-researcher partnership. Here is a list of NIJ-awarded grants and grantees, with project status, under the Tribal-Research Capacity Building Grants Initiative.
About This Article
The work described in this article was supported by NIJ award number 2019-75-CX-0014, awarded to the University of Nebraska.
This article is based on the research report “A Descriptive Analysis of Missing and Murdered Native Women and Children in Nebraska, Barriers to Reporting and Investigation, and Recommendations for Improving Access to Justice,” by Tara Richards, Emily Wright, Alyssa Nystrom, Sheena Gilbert, and Caralin Branscum.
[note 1] Between 2007 and 2020, an average of 664,776 missing persons records annually were entered into the National Crime Information Center. See https://www.fbi.gov/services/cjis/ncic.
[note 2] Research using both quantitative and qualitative methods is known as a mixed-methods study.
- Quantitative Research: A process of collecting, quantifying, and analyzing numerical data on a research topic from existing sources, such as missing persons databases.
- Qualitative Research: A process that produces non-numerical, descriptive data such as behavior observations and the personal accounts of subjects. The qualitative methods used in the Nebraska study were listening sessions with tribal community members and interviews with law enforcement and service providers.
[note 3] The four times were:
- January 20, 2020
- March 31, 2020
- June 31, 2020
- October 31, 2020.