The Arizona State Senate’s Committee on Health and Human Services met on Tuesday to vote on and discuss numerous bills, including Senate Bill 1661, which is sponsored by Sen. Theresa Hatathlie (D – Oro Valley) and relates to the abductions of indigenous peoples in the state under false promises of treatment and healing. While this bill was not voted on and only up for discussion, committee members agreed on its importance.
The bill would require behavioral health residential facilities (BHRF) to notify a patient’s family or next of kin as promptly as possible when a patient is admitted for initial evaluation, and the notification must be documented in the patient’s medical record. SB 1661 also states that an individual is not allowed to be transported to a BHRF by representatives of the facility unless the individual is sober, or is referred by an approved provider of a Tribal healthcare program. Noncompliance would result in penalty fines.
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“The treatment facilities that were mentioned, they prey on the weakest people in my community who need the most help,” First Lady of the Navajo Nation Jasmine Blackwater-Nygren said. “We’ve witnessed unmarked vans drive onto tribal land, pull into gas stations, they find inebriated tribal members, they pull them in, and drive them off without ever receiving proper consent from the individual, and without ever alerting the person’s family.”
Blackwater-Nygren said Tuba City has received over 60 reported cases of these incidents. She explained how the issue has led to the involvement of the FBI, who are currently investigating the abductions and suspicious facility practices. Blackwater-Nygren believes SB 1661 will assist with identifying which facilities are involved in these abductions—which are sometimes fatal.
The Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid agency, offers beneficiaries behavioral healthcare coverage including rehabilitation services and residential behavioral health services, among other benefits.
“The people running the treatment facilities are making Tribal members sign up for AHCCCS and taking money allocated from the federal government,” Blackwater-Nygren said. “Afterwards, they keep them in the facility by feeding them alcohol and drugs to prevent them from leaving the site so they can continue to receive monthly payments.”
Sen. Sonny Borelli (R – Maricopa) asked what the FBI has done, and Blackwater-Nygren said the department is collecting testimony from individuals who were taken into facilities, while also collecting testimony from the broader public who are aware of these practices. The first lady also stated that people die in these facilities, and that toxicology reports show fentanyl in their systems. Individuals of three ethnicities are involved in the abductions, including Jamaican and Kenyan, who are primarily preying upon Natives.
“Basically what you’re saying is, these people are being kidnapped?” Borelli asked, which Blackwater-Nygren confirmed. “The FBI’s made no arrests?”
The room went silent as Borelli—who served in the US Marine Corps prior to moving to Arizona— flipped his paper, shook his head, and said that he wasn’t surprised.
Hatathlie explained how the operations of these facilities are sophisticated, and that the FBI referred three cases to the US attorney general. She explained how one operation can open up in the state, but could operate over 70 to 80 homes. According to Hatathlie, these abductions can bring in well over $7,000 per month with funding through AHCCCS and Medicare, depending on whether it’s a residential behavioral health facility or sober living facility, and depending on how many residents are in each facility. After pointing that out, the majority of senators agreed that this is organized crime.
Under the bill, Hatathlie wants to have these facilities get prior approval from a Tribal program. She also said that all Tribal programs offer behavioral health and includes a listing of vetted facilities, and that this system should be utilized to curtail these practices.
Monica Antone, lieutenant governor of the Gila River Indian Community, provided public testimony and answered questions.
“Just recently my niece was found deceased in a sober living home, along the border of Glendale,” Antone said. “[The deaths] kicked up after a missing and murdered Indigenous meeting we had in the Salt River Indian Community.”
Antone mentioned that the FBI is overloaded with missing and murdered Indigenous persons cases, and that agencies need to work closely together to combat the issue. She continued to explain how her niece was supposed to be in one specific facility, but she was found dead along the border of Glendale in a different facility, with her family being notified 24-hours after the fact.
“Once they’re in the homes, they allow them to use fentanyl, they allow them to drink still, so they’ll call AHCCCS up and say, ‘Hey, they relapsed, I need another 30 days.’ So the $7,000 she [Hatathlie] talked about continues for another 90 days,” Antone said, illustrating perpetrators’ motive for conducting these practices.
According to Hatathlie, the issue was brought up in several meetings with the state’s attorney general and governor. As of last week, 87 of the 197 licensed facilities that were investigated closed. The state has 22 Tribal communities, and Hatathlie said these practices are occurring in all.
This bill would tie into the work of the state’s missing and murdered Indigenous persons task force because it concerns the major displacement of Indigenous people—sometimes across state borders into New Mexico.
“This is not anything new,” Hatathlie said. “This practice has been going on for years because people have gone to these rehabilitative homes, and for one reason or another, they have passed so then what they do is they don’t tell the law enforcement, they don’t tell the coroners where they’re from.”
At the end of the discussion, Sen. TJ Shope (R – Pinal) said he would move SB 1661 to the forefront of his agenda.