MMIW task force pledges to include victims’ families

'Nothing about us without us — we are the experts'

Members of a new task force created to research systemic issues related to the high prevalence of missing and murdered Indigenous people in Washington state worked Friday to reassure victims’ families they would be included in their discussions.

“We’re not trying to exclude anybody and we’re gonna continue to work and be better to make sure that families are brought to the table and get the support that they need,” said Annie Forsman-Adams, a policy analyst for the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force.

MMIW advocates expressed concerns during the second meeting of the task force held via Zoom about miscommunication from the state attorney general’s office regarding attendance at the public comment meeting held the previous day.

“We’re trying to be heard and how is that that we can be heard?” MMIW advocate Roxanne White said. “Nothing about us without us — we are the experts.”

Victims’ families traveled from all around the state to Legends Casino in Toppenish to share their stories, expecting to meet task force members in person. Instead, they arrived to find the members were attending virtually due to COVID-19 concerns.

The meeting was visible to members provided with the Zoom link and to community members, who were able to watch the livestream video provided by TV-W.

White said it was hurtful for the families to travel all that way just to speak to an empty room, without even being able to see the faces of the task force members up on the screen while they relived painful memories.

“We gave the testament of our journeys, of our pain and our trauma, of ourselves and our ancestors,” White said. “I don’t think it’s much for us to hold this task force accountable and say that you need to watch all five hours and listen.”

RELATED: Local advocates for missing, murdered Indigenous people testify to state task force in Toppenish

Forsman-Adams addressed White’s concerns, emphasizing that since it was the first meeting of the task force, they are still working out the logistics of how to best communicate with everyone.

“I take responsibility for the miscommunications about the the meetings today,” Forsman-Adams said.  “I do not for a second want any families to think that we are purposely trying to not include them.”

White asked the task force to consider visiting MMIW families in person and to think of ways they can better keep those families informed of the task force’s progress and any future meeting they have.

“I thank you for the work that you do,” White said. “And I hope that from here on out that grassroots and smaller, sister Indigenous-led organizations that are doing the work in the communities are not being excluded or discounted.”

The second meeting held via Zoom on Friday focused on establishing the task force’s procedures, bylaws and leadership structure. Members proposed creating five subcommittees, to focus on tribes, data and research, family and victim impact, systems and law enforcement.

At the meeting, task force member Rep. Debra Lekanoff announced one step she’s already taken to try to help aid families in finding their missing loved ones.

“I’ve got a bill in the code advisor’s office; we will have our own alert system for MMIW/P,” Lekanoff said. 

Lekanoff said if enacted into law, the bill would make Washington the first state in the nation to have an Amber Alert-type system in place for missing Indigenous people. She said the alert system would involve tribal police, local law enforcement and state and federal authorities.

“You’ll learn more, but that’s a success story that will come out of today’s meeting,” Lekanoff said.

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson created the 23-member task force earlier this year with the goal of figuring out why there’s such an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people statewide and make recommendations on how to address it.

The task force plans to meet quarterly as a whole, make an initial report to the state legislature in 2022 and turn in their final report and recommendations for change in 2023.

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