WASHINGTON, USA — This year Washington became the first state in the country to create a specialized alert system, similar to an amber alert, for missing Indigenous people.
Families and advocates say in the past, their missing persons cases weren’t getting enough attention from the media or police. This new alert system aims to change that.
KING 5’s Facing Race team took a look at how the system has been utilized so far.
Since launching in July, the Washington State Patrol’s (WSP) new Indigenous alert system issued close to two dozen alerts.
“That alone, to me is a success, because we're able to get out and educate and raise awareness to the issue and the problems with reporting, [and the] stumbling blocks that families encounter,” said Carri Gordon, program manager for the Missing and Unidentified Persons Unit at the Washington State Patrol.
Gordon says several states, including Colorado, California and New Mexico, have reached out to WSP to learn more about launching their own Indigenous alert system. According to WSP, of the 22 Missing Indigenous Person Alerts activated since July, 16 people have been found alive, one person was found deceased, and five people remain missing.
“I would say the vast majority are runaway youth. Most of the time, they're staying with other kids or staying in a shelter somewhere and just haven't found their way back to family members. And that's what we hope all [cases] end up like,” said Gordon.
Gordan says at least 15 law enforcement agencies have received training on the alert, but there are still many more agencies that aren’t aware of the resource.
“I think the example that we had that came to us last night is a perfect example of where a family felt like law enforcement wasn't taking the case of their missing young adults seriously,” said Gordon. “It was just a lack of education with regard to the ability to activate this Missing Indigenous Person Alert. That detective, she just didn't know about this. And once we educated her, she's sent us all the information we needed.”
“We're still seeing that imbalance of not all cases, not all jurisdictions, or counties are utilizing the [Missing Indigenous Person Alert] system,” said Roxanne White, founder of Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women, People & Families.
White is an activist who helps families of missing and murdered Indigenous people. She says, while the alert is a welcome resource, more needs to be done to bring those missing home. According to WSP, there are currently 128 missing Indigenous adults and teens in Washington state.
“I've encountered several missing persons cases where officers have come into contact with a missing individual. And the only thing that by law they have to do is tell them ‘Do you know you're missing?’ and ‘You should contact your family.’ And that's it,” said White. “They could be experiencing trafficking, exploitation, domestic abuse. There's a huge gap in the system.”
Gordon explained how law enforcement is limited by law when it comes to releasing information about located missing persons.
“Trust me, I have adult children and I can understand and I have compassion for family members that are frustrated. But unfortunately, it's- there is no other ability for us to tell family members where their loved one is. It's a privacy issue. They do have the right to be missing as an adult,” said Gordon. Gordon encourages families with missing loved ones to contact her team directly for help raising awareness and navigating police jurisdiction issues.
“We're a small group of subject matter experts now in this entire program, which is, I'm really proud of that. So when you call and you reach out to the state patrol regarding a missing person alert, you're gonna get one of four people who do this full time, this is their job and it's their focus,” Gordon continued.
To contact the Washington State Patrol’s missing and unidentified person unit, call 1-800-543-5678 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To sign up to receive the Missing Indigenous Person Alerts, visit the WSP's website.