HB 2951 could bring much needed attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women

When House Bill 2951 was signed into law last month, it marked what could be a turning point in how Washington State handles cases of missing and murdered Native American women. HB 2951 requires the Washington State Patrol (WSP) to work with tribal law enforcement, federally recognized tribes, urban Indian organizations and the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs to conduct a study to increase state resources for reporting and identifying missing Native American women throughout the state.

“This bill is a huge step in the right direction,” said Carolyn DeFord, senior administrative assistant at the Puyallup Tribe’s Community Domestic Violence Advocacy Program (CDVAP). Carolyn knows firsthand the pain and trauma of a missing family member, as her mother has been missing since 1999. She has long been an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous people, both men and women alike.

“It means that we’re acknowledging this as an issue. It means that our loved ones who have gone missing and who have been murdered are getting a tiny bit of justice in that the state is acknowledging that we need to do something about this – that they’re going to put forth resources. Hopefully in that study, as new missing persons reports come about, they’re going to say let’s jump on this and maybe look at how to respond in real time to find people faster and where we to put the resources to do that.”

In addition to her missing mother, Carolyn’s cousin, Puyallup tribal member Lenore Davis Lawrence, was killed in 2002 when she went to assist a friend in a domestic violence dispute. Carolyn pointed out that domestic violence accounts for nearly 75 percent of all murdered Native women. “Domestic violence doesn’t only affect the victim; it claims secondary victims in family, friends and children,” she said. “To quote Councilman Bean, what affects one of us affects all of us.”

Many family members of missing and murdered Indigenous people worked hard to help make this bill inclusive of the many challenges our tribal communities face. Many compelling letters of support and phone calls were sent to our state capital. Additionally, several individuals traveled to Olympia to testify in favor of the bill, particularly from Yakama. Last year, the count was 39 missing or murdered Indigenous women in Yakama – a number that would be much higher if it included Hispanic and Caucasian women. “The people who came over to testify talked about this and the impact it’s had on their community and how ready they are to do whatever is needed to solve the problem,” Carolyn said.

Patricia Whitefoot drove from White Swan to testify before the legislature during HB 2951 hearings.

“As you consider the intent of this legislation, I plead to you to consider the impact of historical trauma on the many families who have had no resolution regarding the fate of missing and murdered Native American women,” she said.

In the fall of 1986, Patricia Whitefoot’s youngest sister Daisy Mae did not return home. Patricia said local law enforcement, the BIA and FBI provided no real help. There were so many missing and murdered Native women in the Yakama reservation area that suggestions arose that a serial killer may be afoot.

“As an older sister, I am simply seeking resolution and justice. I realize that the unresolved missing and murdered women issues face jurisdictional and legal complexities. However, there is a need for statewide awareness and dedicated resources to address these unresolved issues,” she told Olympia lawmakers.

Carolyn testified about Ruthie Kindness who was last seen in the Parkland/Spanaway area who went missing in 2011. The legislators were surprised because they hadn’t heard of this and wondered why, perfectly illustrating why HB 2951 is so desperately needed.

Patricia Whitefoot represents hundreds of Indigenous families across the U.S. impacted by the sudden disappearance of a family member. And when it comes to what is being done for indigenous missing persons and their families, currently in Washington State and nationwide there is much to be desired. For example, databases maintained by the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) help to some degree, although municipal and tribal governments are not required by law to put the names of the missing into this database. In addition, NCIC is confidential and only for use by criminal justice agencies and professionals, not the general public.

There is also serious disconnect when it comes to law enforcement agencies notifying tribes of tribal members reported missing. “As it is, if a tribal member gets reported missing in Washington State or Pierce County, the tribe isn’t notified that they have a missing person unless the family notifies them,” Carolyn said. “With the current system there are no resources made available and the tribe has no way of knowing if that family needs additional services unless that family reaches out. Often this is done in desperation through social media or family members contacting people pleading for help with a possible runaway or missing family member.”

While it’s true that the state can’t mandate tribes to report missing tribal members to state authorities because tribes are sovereign nations, law enforcement agencies should be reporting missing persons involving Native American’s to the tribes.

“That’s where it should be anyway,” as Carolyn explained. “The majority of missing women in Washington State are going missing off reservations anyway so make the city and state report to tribes who is missing, even with a blanket report to all tribes.”

This could be patterned after the Indian Child Welfare Act where if a child is taken into care, the state must send an inquiry to all the tribes that have been indicated as a tribal affiliation of the child. Any tribe that has been affiliated with the child gets a notification that the child has had contact with the state in some capacity and gives tribes the opportunity to respond if the child is a tribal member.

Unlike NCIC, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is public and can be used by anyone. Established by the National Institute of Justice, NamUs is a national centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. NamUs is a free online system that can be searched by medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officials and the general public from all over the country in hopes of resolving missing people cases.

“Once names are in NamUs, it would open up more visibility for people in other states, other advocacy groups, and web sleuths that dedicate their time to searching for the missing,” Carolyn said. It would also provide a more accurate picture of how big the issue of missing Indigenous persons is, and where it’s at its worst. Carolyn expressed hope that Washington State will embrace the use of NamUs as the state conducts its study as directed by HB 2951.

“I think getting people posted on the state (Washington State Patrol) website is a good step then getting them into NamUs where everyone can see them. It’s hopeful that they’re looking at these issues on a larger level and trying to streamline the process,” Carolyn said.

That HB 2951 doesn’t include missing or murdered indigenous men troubles Carolyn, as she had pushed for men to be included in the legislation. She also wanted it to include Canadian indigenous people, First Nations and Alaska Natives. Many of our community members, friends and relatives have made homes here and are provided free border crossing rights under the Jay Treaty.

“We’re hoping that this study opens the door to including people who self-identify as Native American or indigenous because when a missing persons report is taken, they don’t ask you for your tribal affiliation or your enrollment card,” she said. “So we’re hoping that HB 2951 opens the door to acknowledge the whole issue and not just women. It’s a step in the right direction.”