The House Public Safety Committee heard testimony Friday on two bills that would address the current crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
House Bill 1571 would increase communications between county officials and the families of missing Indigenous people while also providing grants to aid human trafficking survivors’ rehabilitation efforts.
House Bill 1725, sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the state’s only Indigenous legislator, would create an emergency alert designation specifically for missing and endangered Indigenous people.
The bills, meant to update a previous measure passed in 2018, come after years of grassroots activism and data analysis by native researchers. The measures aim to address a deadly trend where more and more Indigenous women are being disproportionately affected by violence and 128 women are reported missing in 71 urban centers.
“This issue has been brought to the forefront by families and by survivors who are sharing their stories and their lived experiences, and policy and legislation should remain focused and centered on those families and their experiences moving forward,” said Carolyn DeFord, a member of the Puyallup tribe and an advocate for families of missing persons.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, or MMIW, started among First Nations people in Canada and has since spread to the U.S., raising awareness for the disproportionately high rates of abduction and murder that Indigenous women and girls face.
A snapshot of data from 71 urban cities in the United States found that murder was the third leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native women, according to a 2016 report by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute.
HB 1571, sponsored by Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, would require county coroners to identify and notify the family of a deceased missing Indigenous person, allowing them access to their loved one’s remains to conduct spiritual practices or ceremonies. The bill also sets aside funds for centers to provide long-term shelter, mental health counseling, medical care and legal services for Indigenous survivors of trafficking.
The other bill in the House, HB 1725 would create a new alert designation similar to the AMBER Alert and Silver Alert systems. It would help connect law enforcement, state agencies and media outlets in the search for abducted children and missing seniors.
“Indigenous women go missing at a rate four times higher than white women in Washington state,” said Lekanoff during the hearing, held remotely due to the continued spiked in COVID-19 cases. “They are the highest rate of any ethnic group in Washington state that go missing and I want to make sure that the public hears this.”
The bill instructs the Washington State Patrol to add a new class to the Endangered Missing Person’s Advisory titled “Missing Indigenous Women and Persons Alert.”
Once activated by either a local law enforcement agency or WSP, the special alert would help different jurisdictions of law enforcement collaborate with communication services like radio, cable and satellite broadcasting systems, as well as state and tribal agencies, to share resources and enlist the public’s help in cases of missing Indigenous women.
HB 1725 was requested by the Attorney General’s Office.
“Law enforcement often has limited tools and options when engaging with the public and providing information that can help bring them home quickly,” said Annie Forsman-Adams, who is a policy analyst for the Washington Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force and identifies as a Suquamish woman. “This bill will not only provide additional tools to law enforcement, but it starts to address some of the inequities with information sharing and media coverage among Indigenous communities.”
A 2019 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute estimated that the disproportionately high number of missing Indigenous women is likely an undercount. It cited poor state data collection practices, a lack of resources for families of missing persons, sparse media coverage compared with other demographics, and racism from law enforcement as barriers to accurately understanding the scope of the problem.
The two bills head to committee votes this week, and are expected to have bipartisan support. If passed, the bills would move to the state Senate.