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New emergency system will alert Washington state to locate missing Indigenous people

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Washington is the first state in the nation to create a missing persons alert specifically for Native Americans. They experience some of the highest rates of violence in the country. It is a victory for a movement that has worked to bring visibility to missing and murdered Indigenous women. But as Amy Radil of member station KUOW reports from Seattle, the first use of this new system reveals how complicated some of these missing persons cases truly are.

AMY RADIL, BYLINE: The new Missing Indigenous Person Alerts in Washington state came online July 1, and within a few weeks, the system was activated.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Well, an alert has gone out as law enforcement is looking for a missing woman from Lummi Nation. Angela Maguire, pictured here on your screen, was last seen on Saturday in Ferndale.

RADIL: Angela Maguire's mother is Lucy London. She filed the missing person report with Lummi Nation tribal police that triggered the alert. The situation is complicated. Her daughter has bipolar disorder and has been in and out of the hospital. After being out of contact for about a week, London was concerned that her daughter's mental health was deteriorating.

LUCY LONDON: She was blocking everybody except my youngest daughter, and she wasn't posting anything on Facebook.

RADIL: Lummi Nation police in northwest Washington contacted the state patrol. There, the missing person alert coordinator, Carri Gordon, says she was able to issue an alert in just a few minutes.

CARRI GORDON: We felt that it met the criteria, and there were agencies requesting it because they feel like they need to find her right away.

RADIL: Maguire's story and photo were quickly picked up by local media, and by the next day, the alert had been called off. Maguire was reported safe, but authorities didn't contact her mother, Lucy London, who saw the news online.

LONDON: Nobody told me, and I'm the one reported it. And I did talk to the police officer that took my report. He said, I guess it's a privacy issue.

RADIL: London says she suspects her daughter may have cancelled the alert herself. Her daughter's now staying at a nearby shelter and in limited contact with family members. Patti Gosch is a tribal liaison with Washington State Patrol. She says anyone over the age of 18 can tell law enforcement not to share their whereabouts. She recently located a man whose family had been searching for him for decades.

PATTI GOSCH: We contacted the people who contacted us and said, hey; we have some really great news, but we also have some hard news because we have to respect his privacy.

RADIL: The man told investigators he didn't want his relatives to find him. But even if families aren't always reunited, the new alerts for missing Indigenous people are getting the word out about a vulnerable population. Patricia Whitefoot is a member of the Yakama Nation in central Washington. She became an advocate for missing Indigenous women after her sister Daisy disappeared in 1987.

PATRICIA WHITEFOOT: I have been thinking, what if that was in place when my sister went missing 30 years ago? What would that have done? It would have alerted everybody. I'm from a rural, remote community, and you don't often know what goes on around you.

RADIL: In the past, families say police have been reluctant to act on these disappearances. But Lucy London says when she contacted local police about her daughter, the officer was immediately responsive.

LONDON: I feel that he put out a missing report right away because they know of my situation, that she is making unsafe decisions right now.

RADIL: And the alert worked. London's daughter was missing and people acted with urgency to find her. But London says her daughter's unstable situation, having bipolar disorder and in a shelter, highlights the distance between being found and being truly safe. For NPR News, I'm Amy Radil in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Year started with KUOW: 2005