Editor's note: The following story contains topics about sexual assault and human trafficking that some readers may find disturbing or triggering. The topics may not also be appropriate for all ages.
You’ve likely seen headlines about the MMIP crisis (Missing and Murdered Indigenous People) over the last several years in Alaska, Montana and the Pacific Northwest, but you probably haven’t heard about it here in the Kansas City area.
The MMIP crisis is an epidemic of violence against mostly Native women, although Native men are represented, too.
The issue is mired with story after story of young, Native women going missing and being murdered, but their cases don’t receive the attention or resources needed to solve them.
KSHB 41 I-Team Reporter Sarah Plake learned the crisis is unfolding in our community right now.
She introduces you to a Kansas City-area family whose Native American teenage daughter has gone missing twice.
At such a young age, she’s experienced the violence and exploitation associated with MMIP cases.
"We fail with missing indigenous women. We are being failed here,” Collette Big Spring, the mother, told Plake.
This is the first in a series of stories the I-Team is doing about the MMIP crisis and its impacts.
According to national census data, Native women and their children experience higher rates of poverty, substance abuse disorders, trafficking and violence than other groups of people.
Native women had the second highest homicide rate in the country in 2020.
A 2016 National Institute of Justice study found nearly 85% of Native women have experienced violence in their life, with half of those women experiencing sexual violence.
The disparities are tied to historical cultural loss and trauma, which has cycled itself from generation to generation.
While Native people make up just 0.5% of the Missouri population, they are still at higher risk for these outcomes.
These aren’t just cold statistics for the Big Spring family — they're the reality they live in.
Normally, we don’t identify minors who have been victims of violence.
But in this case, the teen and her family agreed to share their experience to raise awareness about this crisis and how it manifests all over the U.S.
This is Quana’s story.
Collette Big Spring sent I-Team reporter Sarah Plake a video of her daughter, Quana Big Spring, when she was little.
“I have the cutest little film of Quana in her regalia from the back of her, starting to bounce for one of our veteran dances," Collette said. "We have veterans — we call them gourd dances."
Collette adopted Quana when she was a toddler and raised her to respect her Native culture.
Quana holds a tribal card with Cherokee Nation. Collette’s tribal card is with Blackfeet nation.
Although they have different tribal backgrounds, they’ve always shared a connection and reverence for their roots.
"This stuff is just known to be normal,” Collette said of their customs and traditions.
Raising her kids to know and love their heritage also comes with a nagging fear. It’s the painful knowledge of the risks she and Quana statistically face as Native women.
We visited with Collette and her husband, Dallas Lea, over the summer when Quana was missing to talk about how the issue is impacting them.
"Missing and murdered indigenous women has been an epidemic throughout what we call Turtle Island, the United States,” Collette said. “This has been going on for years and years.”
Collette’s fears have become reality twice now with Quana disappearing.
The MMIP crisis is playing out right here in the Kansas City area — a place where the public typically might not think about it.
"We don't have Indian land in Missouri, but there's Indian issues all over where we're not recognized,” Collette said.
Quana is a shy, but perceptive 17-year-old who loves animals, poetry, basketball and going for walks.
"She's a little tomboy and a half,” Collette said. “But I think she's one of those girls that doesn't realize how pretty she is.”
Quana is also a victim of exploitation and trafficking. The trauma has left her with wounds that will take years to heal, but also a longing to return to the innocence of her youth.
Collette showed us a picture of Quana when she was little, in a field surrounded by yellow wildflowers.
“She told me she wants to get back to that little girl,” Collette said. “She would tell me often in the last year, ‘I guess I am kind of pretty.’ I said, ‘Quana, you’re beautiful.’”
Throughout her life, Quana has struggled with mental health issues. Collette said some of these issues are due to the environment Quana was born into before she was adopted.
These struggles made her vulnerable to the cruel underworld of the Kansas City streets.
A cruel cycle
When she was 16 in 2022, Quana disappeared from home. Collette said a man started talking to Quana online and lured her to Northeast KCMO, where he physically and sexually assaulted her.
According to the police report the I-Team obtained, a 20-year-old man held Quana against her will for a month.
When she finally got enough courage to call 911, the report says the man took her phone and smashed it.
Kansas City prosecutors issued two summonses to the man — one for domestic violence assault and one for property damage.
KSHB 41 News is not naming him because the city prosecutor’s office dropped those charges earlier this year.
Quana didn’t have the strength to testify.
"This isn't your average case of a teenage runaway,” Collette said.
When Quana was 13, Collette made the difficult decision to ask the state for help.
"I turned to the system to help with a child that needed so much more help than I could give her in an average home,” Collette said.
The state placed Quana in a youth group home for therapy, but she saw her family every weekend.
"I picked her up every Saturday, so she’s always had unsupervised visits with us,” Collette said.
It was during one of those visits on May 20 that Quana went missing again, exploited — again — by an older man who preyed on her vulnerabilities.
"She left because she was afraid. And I think many of us would have left under her position and ran,” Collette said.
We talked to Quana in person. She told us she panicked and left because she was scared she’d be sent away.
Days before Quana left home, she learned the state wanted to move her to a facility in Texas for medical care.
"People at the group home and her caseworker decided it would be a good idea to tell her they were going to ship her to Texas,” Lea, Quana’s stepfather, said.
Collette said the woman who runs the group home, whom we are not naming, told Quana she’d be sent across the country.
“Quana calls me upset saying, ‘Mom, mom, mom,’” Collette said.
Quana's caseworker texted Collette saying there were no placements available in Missouri and there “was no other option” than Texas, which is more than 600 miles away.
Collette was furious.
It’s not just the distance; Collette says it goes against a federal law. The Indian Child Welfare Act says Native kids in foster care need to be placed in the “least-restrictive setting,” closest to the family and their home.
Collette has fostered dozens of kids over the years, with a special place in her heart for Native children, so she’s well aware of ICWA laws.
"That's one huge issue with this case,” Collette said.
The department of social services declined to talk to us, saying Quana is a minor.
The youth group Quana was at declined to talk to us as well, saying they don't discuss individual clients.
Out of the nearly 3,000 missing Native American children reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children from 2012 to 2021, 90% of them were labeled as ‘endangered runaways.’
The Sovereign Bodies Institute is an organization working to gather the most comprehensive data on MMIP cases to date. It also gathers data on specific cases involving Indigenous youth who run away.
It hopes to “assess the scope of the crisis” and help come up with ways that ICWA courts and youth programs can better intervene and protect these at-risk kids.
The cycle continues
When Quana went missing in 2022, she was near Independence and Hardesty Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri.
The second time around, Collette feared she’d be in the same area — a place known for drugs, trafficking and violence. It's the last place any mother would want their child to be alone.
"I don’t know if she’s dead or alive. If I just heard her voice,” Collette said during an interview over the summer when Quana was still missing.
Collette wouldn’t hear her daughter’s voice for another eight weeks.
In mid-July, two months after she went missing, Quana escaped from a man she said also held her against her will.
She was in the very place her mother feared she’d be, near Independence and Hardesty Avenues in a boarded-up apartment building.
Quana told us she was finally able to call her parents for help after two months. Her parents raced to the McDonald’s parking lot to pick her up.
Quana is safe at home with her parents now, starting on a long road of healing and recovery. She isn’t ready to talk on camera, but told us the man who held her is old enough to be her dad.
She also said he physically and sexually abused her and controlled everything she did — including when she could brush her hair.
Who is protecting girls like Quana?
Shortly after she escaped, Quana and her parents said she met with a forensic interviewer with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for several hours.
The FBI declined to talk to us about this case, but said they often assist local police departments.
Because Quana was found in Kansas City, we wondered if her case falls in KCPD’s jurisdiction, but a spokesperson said they are not investigating anything in relation to her case right now.
Belton said they aren’t either.
Prosecutors haven’t filed any charges.
The man who was abusing Quana most recently was arrested in September on a gun charge. He had warrants out for his arrest on previous gun and drug possession cases. His arrest had nothing to do with Quana’s case, however.
Disappointing news, again, to Quana and her family, who says the justice system constantly fails their daughter.
"I do expect — we’ll say this — all the grown-ups, professionals, to do their jobs, to protect my daughter,” Collette said.
Collette said it’s not just about her daughter; it’s about all the other Native mothers fighting for their daughters.
“Even though it's really hard for me to emotionally talk about Quana to the public because I'm so much of a private person, I think educating people on the missing and murdered indigenous women is extremely important,” Collette said.
Quana’s story is not over. She has a long road of healing emotionally and physically. She's also facing several legal battles ahead.
The cruel irony isn't lost on Collette that Quana got in trouble for absconding as a minor under the state's care, but yet the men who abused her haven't been held accountable.
As our investigation continues, we’ll expose the confusion on the state and federal levels about which laws apply in cases like Quana’s, and who even knows about them.
“With [the Quana Big Spring case], this office was not contacted,” Carold Cadue-Blackwood with the Kansas City Indian Center said. “Sadly, it doesn’t surprise me. If anything, it angers me.”
We went to the Kansas City Indian Center for guidance, which is designated as the area's only Urban Indian Organization. It serves as a social services agency where Native American citizens can have a sense of community. It also provides outreach and can be a valuable resource if a Native person goes missing or is murdered.
We'll speak with Cadue-Blackwood in a follow-up story. When it is published, we'll share the link here.