Ashlynne Mike update: Navajo Nation works on Amber Alert in shadow of girl's death

Posted at 5:08 AM, Jul 08, 2016

After a young girl was abducted on the Navajo Nation and found dead the next day, tribal officials faced tough questions about why an Amber Alert system proposed years earlier was never implemented.

Now, Navajo officials' proposal to build one of their own to cover the 27,000-square-mile reservation, which would be the first specifically for tribal land, is drawing attention to the systems they have been using with Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The systems from the states that encompass the Navajo Nation are similar but can have small differences that keep alerts on child abductions from being sent simultaneously and across the entire reservation. They won't automatically take up another state's alert, so the tribe has to contact each one and make sure an alert meets its criteria.

The tribe's proposal would bypass the states and send alerts reservation-wide.

Navajo officials said they followed protocol in getting the word out on the May 2 disappearance of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike but also that they failed her in not having an alert issued until early the next day in New Mexico. It was broadcast briefly in Arizona.

"Those are the challenges on how we're going to bridge those gaps and get those alerts out," said Harlan Cleveland, who recently became a certified Amber Alert coordinator for the Navajo Nation. "We still have to call each state and say, `Here's what's going on."'

Cleveland's counterparts in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah say they are supportive of the tribe's efforts to create an independent alert system and that better communication is needed between state and tribal officials.

But not all believe it is necessary, given the extensive reach of alerts through television and radio broadcasts, cellphones, roadside electronic billboards.

"It's that adage of why reinvent the wheel," said Chrystal Moore, Arizona's coordinator. "It's working."

The Navajo Nation is approaching a self-imposed 60-day deadline to have a system in place, set shortly after authorities said a stranger lured Ashlynne into a van, then sexually assaulted and bludgeoned her. Tribal President Russell Begaye established a task force to create an alert system.

Cleveland said the ultimate goal is to alert everyone on the reservation about natural disasters, weather emergencies, and missing and endangered people, but that will take time. For now, the tribe is partnering with the states, getting hundreds of tribal emergency responders trained on Amber Alerts and ensuring everyone knows whom to call when a child is missing.

About one-fifth of the 567 federally recognized tribes outline criteria to request alerts from states, said Jim Walters, program administrator for Amber Alert training at Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin. No tribe directly activates the alerts, instead relying on state or regional systems, he said.

Few American Indian children are the subject of Amber Alerts each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 2014, the center counted eight, or 3 percent. It doesn't distinguish between child abductions on or off tribal land.

Earlier this year, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Montana had two Amber Alerts issued for missing children.

In one case, a woman caring for a 13-month-old relative reported that the girl went missing, triggering an Amber Alert that was broadcast in Montana and North Dakota. Authorities canceled it after the woman they say she confessed to striking the girl and drew a map that led them to the baby's body.

The Navajo Nation was tested about a month after Ashlynne's death when two boys from Wheatfields, Arizona, went missing. The Amber Alert issued for the boys was the first in which the tribe directly requested it from a state agency. The boys were found safe.

That success comes after the tribe failed to launch a previous effort for a reservation-wide system. It named an Amber Alert coordinator, wrote a policy and was awarded $330,000 in federal funding as part of a U.S. Department of Justice pilot project announced in 2007 to expand Amber Alerts into Indian Country.

About half the money went to megaphones, portable electric heaters, pop-up tents and other equipment, but the rest intended for public education went unspent. The program crumbled after the tribe's acting chief of criminal investigations left the job.

Tribes face challenges from staff turnover, scant resources, poor communication networks, cultural taboos about speaking of traumatic events, non-existent cellphone signals and remote areas where a police response can take hours, law enforcement experts say.

The differences between state or regional Amber Alert plans can become another hurdle for the few tribes that have land in more than one state, experts say. Those plans generally follow federal guidelines, but they are free to add other criteria, meaning not all are exactly the same.

The Amber Alert system works best within the first five hours of a child going missing. If a child isn't found within three hours, the chance of being found alive decreases by 75 percent, said Art Brooks, director of the Arizona Broadcasters Association, which helps implement the state system.

Robert Platero, the Navajo Nation's former Amber Alert coordinator and a member of the task force, said tribal communities need to be educated on missing and endangered children and be able to count on police to spread the word quickly but carefully.

"We need to maintain the integrity of the system," he said. "We can't just be screaming wolf."