Tribes train to implement Amber Alert under new federal law

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The mother of a Navajo girl who was kidnapped and killed in 2016 urged tribal officials and children’s advocates Tuesday to take advantage of tools and funding under a law that expands access to the nation’s Amber Alert system.

Pamela Foster spoke during a training at Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, for tribes seeking to implement the alert system. Despite a 2007 pilot project, it was not in place on the Navajo Nation when her daughter Ashlynne Mike was abducted near Shiprock, a town in northeast New Mexico. Her disappearance was a catalyst for the state to fully implement Amber Alerts.

“I want you to know there was nothing worse than finding out there were no Amber Alert systems on the reservation at the time when we needed it most. No roadway digital signs, no text alerts,” Foster said.

A federal law signed last year expanded the child abduction alert system to tribal land, giving tribes direct access to federal grants that law enforcement agencies use for Amber Alert systems. The law was named in memory of Ashynne, whose memory has been evoked during Congressional hearings in Washington and marches in tribal communities that aim to shed light on the disappearances of Native American women and girls.

The 2018 law also makes permanent a pilot program that offers training to tribes. It’s unclear how many of the more than 570 tribes in the U.S. participate in the Amber Alert system.

In 2007, the Navajo Nation was among 10 tribes that had participated in the pilot project through the U.S. Justice Department to expand Amber Alerts into Indian Country. But while other tribes, including the Pueblo of Laguna west of Albuquerque, found success in issuing alerts and establishing systems in coordination with state authorities, the Navajo Nation became what one expert called an “outlier.”

Swaths of three different states — Utah, Arizona and New Mexico — are within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the U.S., and that has complicated coordination efforts, said Jim Walters, who leads the federally funded training program.

In Ashlynne’s case, family reported her and her brother missing to police in the early evening, and police learned before nightfall from her younger brother that a man in a red van had taken both of them into the desert. The boy had been able to run away and meet an elderly couple along the road who took him to police.

Shiprock police sent a basic description of the suspect and his vehicle to partnering agencies about an hour later, but it wasn’t until 2 a.m. that an Amber alert was issued, a delay that officials blame on getting information from the tribe to outside authorities who could issue an alert.

Ashlynne’s mother recalled on Tuesday how she and her family had turned to agencies seeking help in their search.

Since 2016, New Mexico has become the first state in the county where all tribes have access to the Amber Alert plan, said Chyrl Jones of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The state has 23 total tribes and pueblos.

Nationwide, a 2018 survey included in a Justice Department report to Congress found that out of 100 tribes questioned, 76 participated in their state’s Amber Alert plan, while 25 tribes reported having a system to disseminate information about abductions.

At the federally funded training held in New Mexico this week, representatives of more than 20 tribes are participating, organizers said.

“Although I’m proud to announce that tribes from 34 states are represented at this year’s symposium, what we want is every tribe from every state to be a part of the Amber Alert network,” Jones said.

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