State legislature approves funding to identify remains of missing, murdered Indigenous people

Mar 12, 2024, 2:08 PM | Updated: 2:44 pm

Photo: A marcher wears a shirt reading "No more stolen sisters" during the third annual march and g...

A marcher wears a shirt reading "No more stolen sisters" during the third annual march and gathering for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women, People & Families, hosted by the grassroots organization MMIWP Families, on Saturday, May 6, 2023, in Seattle. (Photo: Lindsey Wasson, AP)

(Photo: Lindsey Wasson, AP)

The Washington State Legislature approved funding to identify human remains more quickly.

The $500,000 will go toward solving cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people, according to a news release from Washington Attorney General (AG) Bob Ferguson’s Office on Monday.

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The AG’s office said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported homicide is the sixth leading cause of death for Indigenous women and girls and the third leading cause of death for Indigenous men.

According to the Brookings Institution, 85% of Native American women reported experiencing violence, including sexual assault, domestic violence, and rape, during their lifetime. Native American women are also three times more likely to be murdered than white women.

Currently, 4,200 families are without closure in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A 2018 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle found Washington had the second highest number of unsolved cases in the country. The AG’s office said data from the Homicide Investigation Tracking System in the Attorney General’s Office shows Indigenous people are 5% of unresolved cases throughout the state, even though they make up less than 2% of the population.

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Ferguson said there are currently 163 unidentified remains awaiting further testing in the state.

The funding will supplement existing DNA testing resources. Therefore, cases should be resolved more quickly and families won’t have to wait as long to find out about their loved ones.

“Timely DNA testing can bring a measure of closure and help solve more cold cases,” Ferguson said. “Families should never have to endure unnecessary delays when seeking answers about their missing loved ones.”

AG’s office creates task force

In 2021, the AG convened the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) Task Force.

The task force currently has 23 members who have been appointed, including senators, tribal leaders, Washington State Patrol (WSP), councilmembers, and more.

“The Washington State (MMIWP) Task Force will assess systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and people,” wrote the AG’s Office’s website.

The team was assigned to report its findings to the governor and legislature. The most recent report from December 2023 can be found on the AG’s office’s website.

The first recommendation in the report was to increase state funding for genetic testing to bring closure to Indigenous families. According to Ferguson, the recommendation stemmed from task force member Patricia Whitefoot, who waited 14 years for her sister’s remains to be tested and identified. Ferguson said the delay was mostly due to a lack of funding.

Ultimately, the Yakima County Coroner was able to provide the necessary funding.

“I’m pleased the Washington State Attorney General’s Office heard the voices of families in our pursuit to know the status of unidentified remains,” Whitefoot said. “I was reminded of these remains whenever our family received an inquiry about unidentified remains, since my sister, Daisy Heath, had been missing over 30 years. Because of our sister, I found myself motivated and compelled to promote needed resolution about the remains with the task force. Our family wondered about the status of our sister for far too long.”

Ferguson explains where the funding will go

Ferguson said the money will provide new resources to the WSP, giving more money to help local jurisdictions test for unidentified remains. If DNA testing fails, the funding will go to forensic genetic genealogy.

According to the news release, forensic genetic genealogy helps police solve cold cases by combining DNA testing with public ancestry data.

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One recent example is using forensic genetic genealogy to identify the last known remains of the Green River Killer. Last December, 40-year-old remains were identified as Lori Anne Razpotnik who went missing when she was 15 in 1982.

According to the news release, DNA testing of individual remains costs around $2,500 and forensic genetic genealogy costs around $8,000. Some DNA testing of unidentified remains is available for free through the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, although this system has experienced “significant delays in recent years.”

Along with more funding, the task force recommended forming a state workgroup to develop best practices for law enforcement, coroners, and medical examiners, according to the release.

“Racial misclassification in cases of missing Indigenous people is a major systemic barrier to understanding the full scope of the crisis,” wrote the AG’s office.

The task force also recommended the U.S. Department of Justice create a nationwide Missing Indigenous Persons Alert system, similar to the one Washington launched in 2022.

Julia Dallas is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read her stories here. Follow Julia on X, formerly known as Twitter, here and email her here.

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