HONOLULU – The average profile of a missing child in Hawaii: 15 years old, female, from the island of Oahu and Native Hawaiian. That's according to a report released Wednesday that says much more disaggregated racial and gender data is needed to combat the scourge of missing and murdered Native Hawaiian women.
Key findings of the report, the first of its kind released by a task force created by the state Legislature last year to investigate the issue, include that more than a quarter of missing girls in Hawaii are Native Hawaiian and that members of the U.S. military play an outsized role in the sexual exploitation of children in the state.
Similar studies have shown that Indigenous women in Canada and the U.S. mainland are murdered or go missing at rates disproportionate to their size of the population. While the disturbing trend held for Native Hawaiian girls, a comparable, reliable statistic for Native Hawaiian women eluded the task force because of lacking data, said Nikki Cristobal, the report's principal investigator. The task force was created amid renewed calls for people to pay more attention to missing and killed Indigenous women and girls and other people of color after the 2021 disappearance of Gabby Petito, a white woman, triggered widespread national media coverage and extensive searches by law enforcement. Petito’s body was later found in Wyoming.
One of the difficulties in addressing the issue, is that determining the true scale can be difficult because many cases have gone unreported or have not been well-documented or tracked. Public and private agencies also don’t always collect statistics on race. And some data groups together Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, making it nearly impossible to identify the degree to which Hawaii’s Indigenous people are affected. About 20% of the state’s population is Native Hawaiian.
Several states formed similar panels after a groundbreaking report by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that of more than 5,700 cases of missing and slain Indigenous girls in dozens of U.S. cities in 2016, only 116 were recorded in a Justice Department database.
Wyoming’s task force determined that 710 Indigenous people disappeared in that state between 2011 and September 2020 and that Indigenous people made up 21% of homicide victims even though they make up only 3% of the population. In Minnesota, a task force led to the creation of a dedicated office to provide ongoing attention and leadership on the issue.
Agencies such as the state, police departments and the military need to do better at collecting and retaining disaggregated data, Cristobal said.
“Native Hawaiian women and girls are displaced not only through violence, but also through data collection across departments and across islands,” she said.
One of the more disturbing findings of the report was the role of servicemembers in the abuse of children. Publicly available data in 2022 showed that 38% of those arrested for soliciting sex online from law enforcement posing as a 13-year-old during undercover operations were active-duty military personnel, the report said.
In response to a request for comment on the findings, a Department of Defense duty officer said late in the day Wednesday that the message was being forwarded to the right person.
Violence such as “selling and buying girls for sex on military bases, hotels, game rooms, massage parlors and in our own communities," impact Native Hawaiians at much higher rates than other populations, Cristobal said.
The findings are startling but not new, said Khara Jabola-Carolus, executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the task force's co-chair.
“Instead, it vindicates and validates what Native Hawaiians, sex trafficking and gender-based violence service providers and feminist activists have been saying all along and have been told that they were exaggerating or manipulating facts or just simply providing an anecdote,” she said.