The Navajo Nation Council on Jan. 24 unanimously approved the act, which protects vulnerable adults from discrimination, abuse, retaliation, exploitation and neglect.
It is the first law on Navajo land to protect vulnerable adults ages 18 to 54. Previously, Navajo law protected only children and elderly from abuse and neglect
"It's long past due," Shelly said Wednesday. "It has to happen. The disabled are our relatives. We need to help them. The Nation needs to recognize them."
The act, also known as the Doris Act, is named for Doris Dennison, a Navajo community activist who advocates for the rights of those with disabilities. It establishes a legal framework for reporting, investigating and prosecuting abuse and neglect committed against adults with disabilities, including those with mental illnesses.
An estimated 30 percent of adults age 21 through 54 living on the Navajo Nation have a disability.
Dennison advocated for the act after experiencing abuse and neglect following a car accident that left her with a spinal cord injury.
"Her husband left her with all the bills and she was financially stuck with everything," said Hoskie Benally, community and government liaison for the Native American Disability Law Center in Farmington.
"Also, she was left at home for two or three days at a time without anyone knowing she was there. She had no place to go to file for abandonment or neglect. She had to go to court over the bills she couldn't pay."
The bill, which goes into effect today, paves the way for adults who find themselves in situations of abuse or neglect to seek help, Benally said. It fills a gap in services and protection that previously was available only to children age 17 and younger or adults over age 55.
"There was no law on the books to protect vulnerable adults with disabilities," he said. "No one ever advocated for it. There was a gap in protection."
The Native American Disability Law Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the legal rights of American Indians with disabilities, worked for six years to draft the act.
The act "provide(s) for the physical and mental well-being of all individuals, which includes the protection of vulnerable adults and the prevention of their abuse, neglect and exploitation," the act states.
It protects adults from physical, verbal, sexual and emotional abuse, and from neglect or abandonment. Specifically, it protects them from intimidation, threats, unreasonable confinement or any other acts of cruelty "which result in physical or other harm on any person or on property."
The act also calls for a civil penalty of up to $500 for anyone who fails to report abuse or neglect, and for law enforcement to be available 24 hours per day to respond to and investigate such reports, including conducting immediate welfare checks.
Law enforcement officers will provide reports to the Office of the Prosecutor, which will determine the need for legal intervention, including further investigation, possible prosecution and emergency protection orders.
"We're pretty excited about this," Benally said. "Now we have to start planning on how we'll educate the public."
Shelly will sign the act into law during a 10 a.m. press conference today at the Navajo Nation Sports Center in Window Rock, Ariz.