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Nation’s first alert system for missing Indigenous people brings crisis to forefront in Washington state

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Posted at 9:37 AM, May 07, 2023

Nearly a year since the nation's first alert system for missing Indigenous people launched in Washington, the push to address the crisis of unsolved cases continues spreading in the state and beyond its borders.

The system, known as MIPA, was launched last July. As of this week, authorities have issued 56 alerts, according to the Washington State Patrol. While most people have been found safe, two were found dead and six people have not been located.

"It's working because of the community coming together and people stepping up," said Patti Gosch, a tribal liaison with the Washington State Patrol. "More people are being found because the community is involved, than (with) law enforcement going out on the ground and physically finding people."

Gosch, who answers calls from relatives when an Indigenous person goes missing, says the alert system has streamlined the case response and highlighted their urgency.

Before it was launched, Gosch says investigators along with advocacy groups and relatives would work to gather information to create and distribute a poster, but it would take 8 to 10 hours to do so.

"Now, it takes 10 minutes to hit the East Coast and come back. So it's freed up a lot of time to help other families, which is incredible," she said.

The alert is similar to Amber and Silver alerts, and it can be activated when an Indigenous person is missing "due to unexplained, involuntary, or suspicious circumstances and/or is believed to be in danger because of age, health, adverse weather, or other circumstances and is believed to be unable to return to safety without assistance," according to the Washington State Patrol.

Chris Loftis, a spokesperson for the Washington State Patrol, says alerts have been issued for a wide range of cases, from teenage runaways to people who have been abducted or taken for criminal activities such as human trafficking.

While it's difficult to confirm whether an alert has a direct impact on most cases, Loftis and Gosch say it has saved lives. A young woman who was abducted was left on the side of the road, more than 100 miles away from her home after the person who took her saw that an alert was issued, they say. They declined to discuss more details about the incident to protect the woman's privacy.

"If you are a victim, it sends a message of 'hey, we're looking for you. We're not going to give up,' and if you're a perpetrator, it says 'hey, we're looking for you,'" Loftis said.

The focus on the crisis of missing Indigenous persons in the state and its efforts are expanding. A new cold case unit to investigate violent crime is expected to be created within the state attorney general's office after Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation into law last month.

As of Monday, there were 142 Native Americans missing in Washington state, according to the Washington State Patrol. Native Americans comprise nearly 2% of the state's population.

A 2018 report by the Urban Indian Health Institute shows Washington was among the states with the highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Biden and state officials are joining the call to action

The state's response to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people is part of a series of federal and state initiatives launched across the United States in recent years to address a growing crisis that advocates and tribes say has largely been ignored.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are thousands of missing and murdered cases involving Native Americans across the US that have gone unresolved. Meanwhile, data from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systemshows there were 793 unsolved cases of missing Native American people as of December 2022.

President Joe Biden's administration created a unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the cases and enhance the collaborating among federal agencies and Indian Country. This week, Bidenissued a proclamation commemorating Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day on Friday and called on the nation to respond with the "resources needed to stop the violence and reverse the legacy of inequity and neglect that often drives it."

"Families have been left investigating disappearances on their own, demanding justice for their loved ones, and grieving pieces of their souls. Generations of activists and organizers have pushed for accountability, safety, and change," Biden wrote in the proclamation.

At the state level, California and Colorado have launched their own alert systems to assist in search efforts for an Indigenous person who has been reported missing.