SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The first week of a new job can be overwhelming for many and that is especially true for Allison Morrisette and Mary Beth Holzwarth.

Monday, the two began their roles as South Dakota’s inaugural Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons coordinator and human trafficking coordinator and by Wednesday, they were being introduced to the public by Attorney General Mark Vargo.

“For me, the first week has been a lot of information for sure, but I am super excited about it,” Morrisette told KELOLAND News over the phone on Thursday.

Both Morrisette and Holzwarth are in Rapid City where they are beginning to meet with state agencies and law enforcement to get acclimated to their new networks. Soon, they’ll travel across the state to continue meeting with those already working on the issues of MMIP and human trafficking.

“And we will be visiting the northeastern part of the state in January, I believe,” Holzwarth said. “So, our goal is to cover all of South Dakota and make sure that people know who we are , that we’re here for them and that we really are invested in learning everything we can about what is going on and what needs to be done.”

A process nearly two years in the making

The move to fill the MMIP Liaison Office with two staff members is a long time coming.

In March of 2021, Governor Kristi Noem signed HB 1199 into law, creating the Office of Liaison for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons. But despite the signing of the bill, the office would go unfunded for almost another year.

A spokesperson for Noem said on Twitter that her FY2022 budget created the FTE (full time equivalent) for the positions and granted the Attorney General’s office with federal funding authority to apply for grants to fund the office. In January of 2022, then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg met with the legislature to ask for $60,000-$70,000 in funds to fill the position.

That’s when Chamberlain-based nonprofit, Native Hope, stepped in to provide the money necessary to fund the office through 2024.

Now, almost 10 months later the positions are finally filled, and the two women are ready to begin the work.

Addressing the crisis in South Dakota

Mary Beth Holzwarth

With Morrisette based in Rapid City and Holzwarth in Pierre, they’re hoping to use their unique backgrounds and experiences to begin connecting existing organizations with state, local, and tribal law enforcement to begin solving the crisis of MMIP and human trafficking.

For Holzwarth, her fight against childhood sexual assault began after two people close to her were abused by a relative. The incident pushed her to want to protect other children across the state.

“Through that kind of mission, I ended up connecting with a great group of people and we drafted Jolene’s Law, which was passed,” Holzwarth explained. “That created the task force for three years, which eventually became the advisory board for the Center for Prevention of Child Maltreatment.”

In the 13 years after, Holzwarth continued her fight against child sexual abuse with her organization Endeavor 52.

“And then about three and a half years ago, I started working at the South Dakota, women’s prison as the reentry coach. And, you know, that’s where I really began to be more aware of what the women who were incarcerated had experienced as far as trafficking goes,” Holzwarth said.

For Morrisette, experience in the Pennington County Jail and the Pennington County State’s Office combined with her own personal connection as a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe drew her to the MMIP coordinator position.

“I never really thought that I would apply honestly. But, you know, a couple of cases that had happened on a reservation hit home for me, and when they started to hire for and the job listing was posted, I decided, ‘Why not me, right?'” Morrisette said.

Allison Morrisette

Since the positions were announced, Morrisette said she’s been inundated with messages of support from friends and strangers alike.

“And so, the community, the support from even my local community, and people who are already doing the work and have been doing it for years, the support from them is overwhelming,” Morrisette said. “It’s honestly mind blowing that they are so supportive of this. And I think everybody’s on the same page for the MMIP position for sure.”

Both Morrisette and Holzwarth are excited to begin connecting with existing organizations and advocates that have been addressing MMIP and human trafficking for years.

“Like Lily Mendoza, she’s been doing this for years upon years here in our local community,” Morrisette said. “And so, I’m really excited to partner with her and see what more we can accomplish.”

Mendoza is the founder of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society and a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

“I know, there’s a lot of agencies and organizations here that, you know, have been targeting this issue and I don’t want them to feel like they’re overlooked in this aspect,” Morrisette continued. “I am here to learn from them. And to help them make the connections and you know, just to piggyback off of their efforts that they’re already they’ve already been doing.”

Holzwarth, who’s worked with Call To Freedom on human trafficking issues, echoed a similar statement saying she’s hoping to find what obstacles organizations and agencies are facing and how this new role can make it easier to respond.

Building from scratch

The MMIP and human trafficking positions are new to the Office of the Attorney General meaning that Morrisette and Holzwarth are still learning how the positions will work.

Morrisette said her first goal is to get the appropriate agencies, organizations and advocates to the table.

“So that way we can kind of, you know, combat the miscommunication that’s happening with these MMIP cases,” Morrisette said. “And I want to be that person for, you know, nonprofits or a family that has a missing person, and so I can get them to the right agency or the right nonprofits, so that they can get the ball rolling on those cases.”

Morrisette said that miscommunication and jurisdiction is often the root of the issue with MMIP cases and the first 48 hours are crucial when someone goes missing. She hopes there could be a potential protocol for all agencies to follow in those situations.

Holzwarth credits “courageous” people all over the country who have brought to light the issue of human trafficking in recent years and creating a conversation on the topic.

“So, I think that that’s one thing that South Dakota is doing very well right now is they’re wanting to be a part of that change and they’re wanting to hear or not stick their heads in the sand about these issues. But say, ‘Okay, we want we want to create positions because these are issues that we really care about,'” Holzwarth said.

Morrisette added that they’ve already heard from states like Colorado, Oregon, Montana and New Mexico where similar positions and models exist.

“It’s going to be super exciting these next, you know, six, eight months, or even the next year to learn what is already out there and learn from them,” Morrisette said.

For now, the pair are still settling into the new roles and focusing on hearing from existing organizations in South Dakota that are already tackling these crises.