Driving a white SUV down Loop 202, Derek Benally is ready to get to work.
He’s part of a team of Navajo Nation police officers who have been in the Phoenix area, searching for Indigenous people impacted by the closure of the fraudulent rehabilitation facilities.
A scheme that targeted Indigenous people because of a loophole in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System’s (AHCCCS) American Indian Health Program allowed individuals to pose as legitimate health care providers for behavioral health services and then allegedly bill the state for services that were never provided.
Benally and his fellow officers work as part of Operation Rainbow Bridge, the Navajo Nation’s outreach effort, a response team working in the Phoenix area to help displaced Navajo people by connecting them with legit service providers or giving them a way to get home.
“The overall goal is to find people and, at the same time, locate any of our missing people,” said Harland Cleveland, special operations coordinator for the Navajo Nation Police Department.
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The team of officers from the Navajo Nation Police Department are part of the missing person units within their districts on the Navajo Nation.
“This is a different jurisdiction for us, so we are basically visitors,” Navajo Nation Police Sgt. Rowland Dash said, explaining that they let local police departments know when they’re in the area.
“We’re not down here in the blind,” he said. “They know what we’re doing, and a lot of the departments are supporting us and what we’re doing,”
The officers were on the ground in the Valley for three weeks in May and June, and identified areas where they may have the best chance of finding displaced Indigenous people.
One of those areas includes the crowded shopping area at 51st Avenue and Baseline Road, where they started their final day of searching for displaced Indigenous people in June.
NNPD on the ground
Benally pulled into the shopping plaza, driving and scanning the area for potential Indigenous people needing help.
Since being in the area, Benally said it has been a real eye-opener to interact with people directly impacted by the hundreds of millions of dollars in alleged Medicaid fraud and hear their experiences.
“It’s important to hear the story from the Native Americans themselves on an individual level because their situations are different,” Benally said because it can differ from what their families tell the police.
Benally drove his large SUV toward the west side of the plaza, near the Home Depot, where an Indigenous man was lying at the end of the lot with a white towel wrapped around his neck.
Benally parked the vehicle along the curb, grabbed his clipboard, got out and approached the man. Benally is not dressed in a police uniform, instead wearing a black polo shirt with beige pants. He looked like any other person, and that was the point.
The Navajo Nation Police Department has no jurisdiction in the Phoenix area, so all the officers involved in Operation Rainbow Bridge were conducting these checks as citizens. Not wearing a police uniform allowed them to appear more approachable.
Benally approached the man lying on the ground and asked if he was OK, his name and if he was Native American. The man was intoxicated but able to tell Benally his name was Frank and he is a Navajo man from Tuba City, the most populous community in the Navajo Nation.
When Benally asked if he was displaced from the closure of the rehabilitation homes, he told Benally that he was in one near Lower Buckeye Road and requested to go back into a home. That’s when Benally put in a call to the 2-1-1 hotline.
In response to the closure of the allegedly fraudulent rehabilitation homes, AHCCCS launched a special 2-1-1 hotline number in May for individuals impacted by the closure and left without services.
Law enforcement officers can also use the 24/7 hotline to report when a response is needed to assist anyone impacted.
As part of their effort to get people to utilize the hotlines, officers were supplied with information cards to hand out to people they find who may need help with housing, transportation and other health care services.
Benally stayed on the phone with the 2-1-1 hotline response team for 25 minutes to get the services Frank would need to be placed in a legit rehabilitation facility. After Benally got all of Frank’s information verified through the hotline, they worked on placing him in a hotel as they located a rehabilitation facility for him.
But because he was intoxicated, Frank had to go through a detox program before getting into a hotel or receiving any other services.
The detox center the hotline arranged to transfer Frank to was Community Bridges Inc (CBI), a behavioral health care agency in Phoenix. For that to happen, Benally had to get verbal confirmation from Frank agreeing to receive these services from the hotline.
The crisis representative from the hotline arranged transportation to the detox center and informed Benally that it would take at least an hour to pick up Frank. Benally told the representative that he would wait with Frank until the transport arrived.
The Navajo Nation Police Department has the only on-the-ground response team from a tribal nation in Arizona out actively looking for displaced Indigenous people. From left to right: Juliowna Begay, Harland Cleveland, Derek Benally, Rowland Dash, Israel Tsosie and Arlinda Chischillie-Nez. (Photo by Shondiin Silversmith / Arizona Mirror)
The 2-1-1 intake times vary. Benally said wait times ranged from 20 minutes up to an hour to get the individual through the process. Likewise, the wait time for transportation was often between one to three hours.
Two representatives from CBI showed up to assist Frank, but he refused their services and declined their transportation to CBI, choosing instead to stay where he was. The representatives told Benally that they could not take an individual without their consent. The only other option to get him into a detox center would be through law enforcement.
Frank ultimately refusing help was not a surprise for Benally, who said he’s had other people go through the hotline process before denying help when it arrived.
“I want people to understand that a lot of Native Americans choose to be out there knowing the risks,” Benally said.
That has been one of the officers’ biggest challenges while on the ground, he said. Refusing further services has been the most common response the Navajo Nation Police Department has gotten from people on the ground.
“Most of the people that we have made contact with are telling us this is where (they) want to be,” Dash said, but the officers still contact people and assist them if needed.
“We’ll help ’em as much as we can,” Dash said.
Even though Frank refused help, the Navajo Nation police had one successful interaction on their last day in the field.
Dash was able to successfully help a Hopi woman they found down the road from Frank. She was displaced and wanted to go home to the Hopi Nation.
They got her help through the hotline. Within a few hours, she had been taken to a hotel.
At the end of the Navajo Nation Police Department’s 18-day operation, they located eight Navajo people from their missing person list. They made contact with 271 displaced Indigenous people — more than 15 per day on average. Of those, 70% were Navajo.
The Navajo Nation Police Department released an updated missing person list on its Facebook page to reflect the most recent cases. As of June 7, the Navajo Nation Police Department reported that there are 81 individuals from the Navajo Nation that are currently missing, with some missing since the 1970s, including 23 women and 58 men.
Dash said he feels that the operation was a success, given that, when it began, they didn’t know anything or where to go.
“We didn’t have any information on these facilities here, but now we know these facilities do exist, and we know who they are targeting,” Dash said. “We broke down that wall, piece by piece.”
Cleveland said the team finding people on their missing person list shows the progress they made by being down in the Phoenix area for three weeks.
“We made a huge difference,” Cleveland said. Considering how large the Phoenix area is, locating eight people is a huge accomplishment for the Navajo Nation Police Department.
Navajo Nation Police Officer Juliwana Begay found one of the people on her missing person list in a rehabilitation facility. She had been trying to find that person for more than a year, and being on the ground in Phoenix with the team helped her.
The man was OK, but said he did not want to return to the Navajo Nation.
“There’s a lot of miscommunication between families at times, and that is how they end up on the missing person’s list,” Begay said.
NNPD investigation started in 2021
The Navajo Nation Police Department was the only tribal law enforcement agency with officers in the Phoenix area searching for displaced Indigenous people affected by the closure of the allegedly fraudulent rehabilitation homes.
The department has been actively investigating cases involving fraudulent rehabilitation homes since 2021. Dash has led the investigation and worked with other missing persons units across the Navajo Nation.
The investigations into missing Navajo people linked to the rehabilitation homes led them to their first on-the-ground operation in the Phoenix area in December 2022.
“Our investigation brought us all the way here, even though we ran into walls from when this whole thing started,” Dash said, adding he’s glad they have been able to overcome the barriers because everyone involved can now start solving the issue.
Dash said it upset him when they learned about rehabilitation homes targeting Indigenous people. When they find the people affected, he said it’s sad to see them that way because they’re still somebody’s loved ones.
“For me to actually see them and to help ’em is probably one of the biggest rewards for me,” Dash said. His goal is to help the families find their missing loved ones, and they’re doing everything they can to help them.
The Navajo Nation Police Department has five missing people units based in Tuba City, Chinle, Window Rock, Dilkon and Crownpoint.
“We are here. We are out here on the streets. We are looking, and we’re doing everything we can to provide assistance to the family,” Dash said.
Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch commended the operation’s work, noting that the Navajo Nation Police Department was able to assist the people who would have otherwise fallen through the cracks because they didn’t have access to resources.
“Our teams were able to provide them that resource,” Branch said. “They were able to make sure that folks had transportation to get to shelter and to follow that path of transition into the legitimate care provider context or back home.”
Branch said that the work of the officers added so much value to what Operation Rainbow Bridge is trying to achieve.
“So many lives were touched by the work that they did,” Branch said.
Operation Rainbow Bridge to stay in Phoenix
Even though the Navajo Nation Police Department’s ground operations have come to an end, Operation Rainbow Bridge will still have a presence in the Phoenix area as team members continue to work on connecting with displaced Navajo people.
Branch said when the Arizona Governor’s Office announced the closure of the fraudulent rehabilitation facilities all at once, they understood that between 5,000 and 7,000 Indigenous people would be turned out onto Valley streets.
The displacements happened in May, right as the summer heat was ramping up, Branch said, posing a humanitarian crisis, and Navajo leaders didn’t want those people not to have access to proper resources.
That made it crucial for the Navajo Nation to have people on the ground in the Phoenix area, helping and connecting Indigenous people with the state’s available resources.
Branch said their operation is providing whatever additional help they can, and she believes that their efforts have strengthened the state’s response.
“We were able to observe gaps in services and help them to provide better services,” Branch said. “There still are gaps, unfortunately, and we’re continuing to work with them, but if we weren’t here on the ground, we wouldn’t be seeing this, and so many more of our people would’ve fallen through the cracks.”
Branch said one of the gaps they’ve identified is how many displaced Indigenous people don’t have cell phones when displaced and cannot access the 2-1-1 hotline effectively. They’ve also had issues with long wait times through 2-1-1 and long pick-up times.
It has been challenging, Branch said because there are people out in hot temperatures who don’t want to wait in one place for long periods or may not be in a safe space to access the 2-1-1 services properly.
Branch noted that another challenge they’ve noticed in services is that some people have reportedly been promised trips to their doorsteps on the Navajo Nation but are instead dropped far from home.
“In many cases, people are being transported to the nearest border town, typically through Greyhound,” Branch said, adding that type of environment is not great for many individuals affected by substance abuse.
“It also makes it easy for the recruiters to know where to pick people up and bring them back into the system,” Branch said, noting that is why they are continuously working on ensuring people are getting to their doorstep.
The Navajo Nation is vast. If an individual is trying to get home to Chinle, but the closest Greyhound bus they are provided travels as far as Flagstaff or Holbrook, they are still two or three hours from home.
That isn’t helpful, Branch said because that individual is left with quite a distance to travel to get home. This is a gap that Branch hopes Operation Rainbow Bridge can help fill. Their services offer transportation to Navajo people who cannot get direct transit from the 2-1-1 hotline.
Operation Rainbow Bridge has established its hotline to help those with difficulty connecting with the 2-1-1 network, effectively filling in as the backup for the hotline.
“Essentially, it’s an extra safety net,” Branch said. “If someone slips through the 2-1-1 network, then we’re there to catch them ideally.”
Operation Rainbow Bridge is located at 4520 N. Central Ave in Phoenix, and representatives can be reached at 1-855-HELPORB (435-7672) or 1-866-OPRNBOW (677-6269). Their website is www.operationrainbowbridge.com, and an Operation Rainbow Bridge app is available for download.
The Navajo Nation Commission on Emergency Management declared a Public Health State of Emergency for Navajo people affected by the exploitation of fraudulent rehabilitation facilities.
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren signed a declaration on June 19 alongside Branch and Navajo Nation Department of Behavioral Health Services Executive Director Thomas Cody.
During the signing, Nygren said he is grateful for the ongoing work being done by Operation Rainbow Bridge, and he’s glad to sign the emergency declaration to help them tap into additional funding from federal, state and tribal resources.
The declaration will continue to help our families in need, Nygren said, and he’s happy that the ground operation has found multiple missing Navajo people.
“We’re out there, no matter where our Navjao people are, we care about them and will continue to look for them,” Nygren said. “At the end of the day, the Navajo Nation is their government regardless of where they are.”