I Had to Become a Warrior Mom
Mother of murdered Navajo girl challenges tribal, federal, state and local leaders to be vigilant at 2019 AMBER Alert in Indian County Symposium
Through the nightmare of learning her daughter had been murdered, Pamela Foster knew she must start a movement for missing and abducted Native American children. On May 2, 2016, her 11-year-old daughter, Ashlynne Mike, was kidnapped and lured to accept a ride home from a stranger within the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.
“It’s the day my world shattered in a million pieces,” said Foster. “I had to become a warrior mom. I had to be brave and fight for my daughter who is gone too soon.”
At the National AMBER Alert in Indian Country (AIIC) Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico, July 30-August 1, 2019, Foster shared the helplessness she felt after learning her daughter was missing–and police were not prepared to issue an AMBER Alert.
“My family, friends and community wanted to help but they didn’t know where to start,” said Foster. “Everyone was in a state of confusion and I learned others were facing the same problem. I promised to do all I could to fix the loopholes and fight for the AMBER Alert in Indian Country.”
More than 200 federal, state, local and tribal leaders attended the symposium to learn how to implement the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2018, a law providing funding and resources to integrate state and regional AMBER Alert Plans and resources with federally recognized tribes. The federal legislation was a direct response to the events surrounding Ashlynne’s death.
The symposium debuted a video describing Foster’s inspiration, through her incredible ordeal, to become an advocate for other children in Indian Country. The video concludes with Pam visiting a memorial site for her daughter. As she was praying and spreading corn pollen into the air, a large rainbow appeared in the sky, and then a second rainbow near the place Ashlynne’s body was found.
“When I saw the rainbow, that tells you Ashlynne was there,” said Jim Walters, AMBER Alert Training and Technical Assistance Program (AATTAP) administrator, “There is no greater strength than a parent who has been through a tragedy. Pamela is helping make sure every child in Indian Country has the same protection as a child living in the city.”
The symposium was made possible by the U.S. Department of Justice’s (US-DOJ) Office of Justice Programs (OJP), Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), and presented by AATTAP.
Brad Russ, National Criminal Justice Training Center Director at Fox Valley Technical College, of which AATTAP is a part, attended the symposium.
“I remember hearing about Ashlynne Mike when it first occurred and how upset we all were,” said Russ. “Jim Walters knew we couldn’t just be upset. He said we need to do something. He went to Shiprock to talk to elders, law enforcement leaders and others on Capitol Hill to make sure everyone knew we needed Indian Country legislation to stop a tragedy like this from happening again.”
The Ashlynne Mike AIIC Act In Action
The symposium provided an overview of what has been accomplished since the Ashlynne Mike Act was signed into law. Chyrl Jones, Deputy Administrator for the OJJDP, announced that all 23 tribes in New Mexico are fully participating in the AMBER Alert program.
“New Mexico is the first state to achieve 100 percent access,” said Jones. “Our goal is to develop a national network of AMBER Alert plans and ensure all communities benefit from this important tool.”
The symposium included representatives from 22 tribes located across 34 states. The Navajo Nation now has an AMBER Alert program up and running which spans 27,000 square miles in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.
Harlan Cleveland, Emergency Management Director for the Navajo Division of Public Safety, urged tribes to get more training to set up their own AMBER Alert program.
“Take a proactive approach, don’t be reactive,” said Cleveland, “Be committed when you get that call. It is going to happen. You will get that call.”
He recommended tribal leaders work with state AMBER Alert coordinators, other stakeholders and elected officials to “piggyback” on existing AMBER Alert programs. Cleveland recounted how the tribe resolved a case that didn’t meet the AMBER Alert criteria.
“We issued an Endangered Missing Person Advisory, which is a powerful tool,” said Cleveland. “The suspect called in and said, ‘Take my photo down.’ Getting the child back is your reward when you are done.”
Regina Chacon, Bureau New Mexico Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief, suggested tribal leaders should have the “heart of a servant” while working with other partners during AMBER Alerts.
“When a child is missing or abducted, there should be no borders,” said Chacon. “But we still need to be respectful of the sovereignty and borders of others.”
The FBI estimates more than 7,000 Native American children are missing in the U.S. OJJDP awarded $1.8 million last year to develop training and technical assistance for missing and exploited children in tribal communities, plus an additional $1 million specifically to support the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country law.
“We are fully aware that when it comes to the safety of our children in Indian Country, the task before us is substantial,” said John C. Anderson, U.S. Attorney, District of New Mexico. “Native Americans, including Native American children, experience violence at rates higher than any other ethnic group in the United States. The Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act is a positive step toward that goal.”
Funding from the Act supported a National Survey of Federally Recognized Tribes and State AMBER Alert Coordinators to assess the various needs, challenges and obstacles encountered by tribes in the integration of state or regional AMBER Alert communication plans.
Researchers attempted to contact 573 tribes and were able to collect data from 100 tribes–including the ten tribes involved with the 2007 AMBER Alert in Indian Country Pilot Project. At the time of the study, findings included the following:
- 86 tribes are authorized to take part in state AMBER Alert plans
- 76 tribes have an emergency plan for a child abduction
- 25 tribes use their own systems to disseminate an alert
- 50 tribes say more training is needed to implement alert plans
Participants at the symposium included representatives from these and other tribes, pueblos and nations (shown here in alphabetical order): Blackfeet, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Comanche, Crow, Fort Peck, Hoopa Valley, Hopi, Isleta, Muckleshoot, Nak NU WE Sha Yakama, Navajo, Oneida, Prairie Band of Potawatomi, Pueblo of Pojuaque, Santa Clara Pueblo, Tohono O’odham, Umatilla, Washoe, White Mountain Apache, Yurok, and Zuni.
Pamela Foster concluded her remarks with a challenge to everyone. “We need to make changes to make children safe,” she said. “The children in your community rely on you. Do it for your children and your grandchildren. Don’t wait until it’s too late.”