When Native American women and girls disappear, they do so three times — in life, in the media and in data. That sad reality, chronicled by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute and others in recent years, deserves far more attention in our region and state. A new Washington task force is off to a promising start.
In its first report the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force recommends 10 steps that Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature should take to help bring an end to generations of inattention and mistreatment by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Foremost among the recommendations is creation of a fully funded cold case unit dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and people. State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, whose office would oversee the unit, has already endorsed the proposal.
Murder is the third-leading cause of death for American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The murder rate is almost three times that of white women, according to a 2017 study, and in some U.S. counties, it’s more than 10 times the national average.
Yet reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls aren’t tracked carefully and garner far less notice than other cases that periodically dominate the national news. In 2016, the National Crime Information Center recorded 5,712 reports of missing Indigenous women and girls in the United States, but the federal missing persons database showed only 116 such cases.
“Our women were going missing and murdered, and no one was listening,” says Abigail Echo-Hawk, a task force member and executive vice president of the Seattle Indian Health Board. “Today, this task force puts forward recommendations that say justice isn’t for tomorrow, justice is now, and we will fight for it.”
The 25-member task force, founded last December, hopes a centralized cold case unit will provide the support that smaller local law enforcement agencies need to fully investigate missing persons reports. It’s a measure that state lawmakers should move swiftly to enact.
Other recommendations deserving support include developing best practices for local law enforcement agencies, and social and health services to improve coordination between themselves and with federal, state and tribal counterparts. Another idea focuses on improving law enforcement communication with family members in missing persons cases.
The task force has asked to be extended until June 2025 so that members can delve deeper into the issue. It’s a reasonable request considering the many generations of what Annie Forsman-Adams, the task force’s policy analyst, calls a “painful history.” As she says, we need to start the process “to make things safer and better for Indigenous communities.”