The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth (HSC) and Montana State University Billings are collaborating to use forensics to address a national epidemic of missing or murdered American Indians, HSC said in a news release.
Through the agreement, the HSC-based UNT Center for Human Identification and MSU Billings will establish forensic capabilities to use DNA to resolve missing person cases, solve crimes and help prevent human trafficking.
This epidemic gained national prominence when President Trump announced in November the creation of a Task Force focused on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
More than 500 indigenous women and girls have vanished or been killed in 71 American cities, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute.
“The tragedy unfolding among indigenous populations is tearing apart families and communities,” HSC Fort Worth President Dr. Michael R. Williams said. “The UNT Center for Human Identification is an elite crime laboratory and research engine with the expertise and resources to make an impact on this enormous problem through this unique collaboration with Montana State University Billings.”
The issue is of great concern in Montana where American Indians make up 6 percent of the overall population but are 27 percent of missing person cases, the news release said.
The Montana Legislature created a state task force in 2019 to confront the high number of missing indigenous people.
“This new collaboration between HSC and MSU Billings offers another valuable resource in our fight to find justice for missing persons and their loved ones, and will be complimentary to the work our state crime lab does on these types of cases,” Montana Attorney General Tim Fox said.
“The rising number of missing and murdered indigenous people is alarming. By combining forces with HSC, MSU Billings will now be able to play a key role in addressing this epidemic,” said Dr. Dan Edelman, MSU Billings Chancellor.
“The world-class technology and research HSC developed is one-of-a-kind, and by becoming a regional site for this technology, MSU Billings will be able to actively contribute to solving crimes and missing persons cases, bringing the perpetrators to justice and providing closure to the victims’ families,” Edelman said.
The Center for Human Identification is committed to reducing the number of unidentified missing or murdered indigenous people.
In 2019, officials from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS), a unit within the Center for Human Identification, participated in 27 training and outreach events for tribal law enforcement in 11 states. Collaborations to import data related to American Indians are underway with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety and the Alaska Missing Person Clearinghouse.
The Center for Human Identification researches and develops novel, advanced DNA sequencing technologies to lead the way in forensic genomics. Through the collaboration, HSC could help MSU Billings establish forensic capabilities to contribute to solving crimes and missing person cases while working closely with indigenous populations in Montana.
“Mistrust of government and law enforcement are common among indigenous populations. MSU Billings, as an academic institution, is positioned to build trusting relationships with American Indian tribes to work together to resolve cases,” said Dr. Bruce Budowle, Executive Director of the Center for Human Identification.
“By replicating some of our forensic capabilities at Montana State University Billings, we are creating the potential to help solve missing person cases, address crimes and fight human trafficking,” Budowle said. “We are committed to helping improve the quality of life for American Indians and their families through this important collaboration.”
This partnership will also lay the groundwork for establishing pathways for MSU Billings’ students into HSC forensics, physician assistant, D.O., and M.D. programs; both institutions will develop joint degree programs, facilitate joint teaching, research, and cultural opportunities for faculty.
“This unique partnership between our institutions will expand student internship and research opportunities, giving them a competitive advantage in their studies and career,” said Dr. Kurt Toenjes, MSU Billings College of Health Professions and Science Dean. “We look forward to working alongside top researchers, faculty, and staff at HSC to ensure we provide quality learning opportunities for our students.”
Finally, this collaboration will provide MSU Billings’ students exposure to the fields of forensics and other related programs. They will have the opportunity to obtain unique and hands-on experiences and to study alongside top researchers in forensics, the news release said.
– FWBP Staff