“Administration Issues” Derailed a Study on Sex Trafficking in Native Communities

Published Jun 5, 2019

A research study, looking at sex trafficking in Native communities, was terminated when the Trump administration transitioned in.

What happened: A first-of-its-kind research study, looking at sex trafficking in Native communities, was terminated when the Trump administration transitioned in. The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) – the research, development and evaluation agency of the US Department of Justice (DOJ) – had awarded funding for the study in late 2016. However, in April 2017, the study was terminated with little explanation given except that irreconcilable “administration issues” had occurred.

Why it matters: By denying the ability of scientists to study this problem, the administration has hampered the ability of decisionmakers to develop evidence-based approaches to combat the sex trafficking that is occurring in Native communities. Human trafficking in Native communities is believed to be an enormous problem, but national advocacy groups and federal agencies have encountered substantial difficulties tracking the victims of sex trafficking from Native communities. The national and regional data available to understand the scope of the problem is limited or non-existent.

The decision of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research wing of the US Department of Justice (DOJ), to cancel this study on sex trafficking does a great disservice to Native communities. The NIJ study was set to become the first federally funded research to study trafficking in Native communities on a national scale and could have had provided a wealth of information for Native groups, law enforcement, decisionmakers, scientists, and the public. Funding to complete the study was awarded in late 2016. In March 2017, as the Trump administration was transitioning in, the study appeared to be on track for completion. An NIJ officer told the study’s principal investigator Meredith Dank and her research team that they could start work on the study. However, in April 2017, the NIJ did an about-face and asked Dank and her team to cease all work on the study, claiming that the grant was being pulled due to irreconcilable administration issues. “This was to be the first study of its kind, and with very little explanation, it was gone,” Dank told High Country News.

According to the study description, this type of study design was specifically requested by leaders in Native communities. This study would have been the first of its kind and would have been conducted with active participation from Native groups. This type of information is particularly needed, according to community leaders, because it can be used to address the issue of sex trafficking with policies and practices that truly respond to tribal priorities and concerns. Tribal coalitions from across the country, representing a network of over 80 tribes, had signed on to participate in the study. The study would have shed light on the current process in which sex trafficking cases are currently being identified, investigated and prosecuted across the US.

The timing of the study’s cancellation is particularly odd. Just before the study was canceled, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report in March 2017 criticizing the DOJ and two other agencies on its lack of data collection on the human trafficking of Native people. The GAO recommended that the DOJ require its grantees to collect data on whether human trafficking victims that were obtaining services were Native American. The lead author of the GAO repeated the importance of obtaining data under Congressional testimony, “If you don’t have the data, it can sometimes be really difficult to figure out what services need to be provided to a particular population.”

Researchers that were previously affiliated with the NIJ have reported that the current leadership at the NIJ has been shifting the agency’s focus away from researching violent crimes that are committed against minority groups. For instance, an NIJ program called the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship has shifted from researching crimes against minorities to issues involving immigration enforcement and protecting law enforcement personnel. This shift away from minority issues under the current administration may be happening at other science-based agencies. In our 2018 federal scientist survey, several scientists who work at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that scientific research on health issues in minority populations were being deemphasized. For example, one scientist said: “Minority health and those at risk for acquiring HIV are areas that may not be receiving as much attention lately.”

The NIJ is considered the leading federal agency on the research and evaluation of crime and justice issues. Human trafficking and violence against Native peoples are two of primary focuses of the agency. Some of the most frequently cited research on violence against Native women – for instance, 83.3 percent of Native women have experienced violence in their lifetime – is generated by the NIJ. Considering that Native groups may be particularly vulnerable to traffickers, carrying out robust science on the issue, in coordination with Native communities, is absolutely required if we want to create evidence-based approaches to tackle this problem and reduce sex trafficking in these communities. This is a clear example of politics interfering with the process of science, and the terrible consequences of these politics will be disproportionately borne by Native people.