Heitkamp-McCain Bill to Expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country Passes in the Senate

Heitkamp and McCain introduced the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country.

U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and John McCain, R-AZ., recently announced that their bipartisan bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country passed the U.S. Senate and has been sent to the president’s desk to be signed into law. Heitkamp’s Savanna’s Act to help address the crisis of missing and murdered Native American women builds off this bill to expand AMBER Alerts in Indian Country.

Heitkamp and McCain introduced the Ashlynne Mike AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act to expand the child abduction warnings in Indian Country.

Heitkamp told Indian Country Today that AMBER alerts are critical for law enforcement efforts to quickly disseminate information to the public about abducted children to generate leads as quickly as possible, but currently such alerts are not available in many parts of Indian Country – or are limited to tribal lands.

The bill being signed into law, by making tribes eligible for AMBER Alert system resources, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and government officials will better be able to coordinate to find and rescue missing or abducted children, particularly if they have been taken off of their reservation.

“Tribal lands should not be safe havens for criminals or a weak link in our ability to find and protect children who have been abducted or run away,” Heitkamp said in a release. “Making AMBER Alerts more accessible to Indian Country is critical to making sure children and families are protected on tribal lands in North Dakota and across the country – an issue that both Sen. McCain and I are passionate about.”

“Passage of this bipartisan bill is a big win for safety on tribal lands, and I look forward to the president signing it into law. We must continue the fight to give law enforcement agencies at all levels the tools they need to prevent crimes in Indian Country and bring criminals to justice, which is why I also introduced Savanna’s Act and fight every day to keep communities in North Dakota strong and safe. Every child and every family in Indian Country should know that all resources are at their disposal to stay safe – and our bill soon becoming law is an important step in that direction.”

“I’m proud the Senate has passed our bill, named for Ashlynne Mike, to expand the AMBER Alert child abduction warning system in Indian Country,” said McCain. “This bipartisan legislation addresses serious gaps in current law that have prevented tribes from quickly issuing AMBER Alerts and helping victims like Ashlynne escape tragedy. I look forward to the president quickly signing this legislation into law so we can give tribes the resources they need to track down perpetrators and save lives.”

Heitkamp told Indian Country Today that many people across the country don’t realize an AMBER can be a resource taken for granted.

“I don't think people realize is that parts of this country are not covered by AMBER alerts. They take AMBER alerts for granted,” said Heitkamp. “I think it shocks people when you talk about the numbers of missing and murdered indigenous women and everytime this happens, it is an unfortunate opportunity to point out that there are people left behind that don’t have the same level of protection that our children enjoy. I hope this not only begins a discussion in protecting children, but how can we recover any missing person on a reservation that is one of the challenges.”

“For instance there is a missing woman at MHA Olivia Longbear, you say how can we use a network, how can we build support not only protect children, but all Indian people. We need to get workable systems out there. I think until we have a system of justice in Indian Country that protects Native American women and children the same way women and children in Bismarck, I'm not going to be happy,” said Heitkamp.

The bill is named for Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year old Navajo girl who was abducted and murdered in 2016. In that high profile case, authorities did not issue an AMBER Alert for Ashlynne until the day after family members reported her abduction. According to the FBI, more than 8,000 children are listed as missing in Indian Country today.

The DOJ currently operates a pilot program that offers AMBER Alert training services to Native American tribes, but the Heitkamp-McCain bill will make that initiative permanent and enhance DOJ oversight of how the grants are used. The legislation also reauthorizes the DOJ grant program that assists state and local governments in developing and implementing AMBER Alert communication plans. These communication plans are used by law enforcement agencies to expedite child abduction alerts to the public. The bill will also require the DOJ to perform a needs assessment of AMBER Alert capabilities on Indian reservations.

Heitkamp told ICT she was encouraged by the passage of the bill and was hopeful other lawmakers

“When you are coming to the table with great partners such as John McCain, you are able to get stuff done,” said Heitkamp. “Cindy McCain has been an inspiration as well.”

Heitkamp has also addressed crime and human trafficking in Indian Country and last October, introduced Savanna’s Act to make sure North Dakota’s tribes have the information and resources they need to protect women and girls from violence, abduction, and human trafficking.

Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor and senior correspondent, Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on TwitterFollow @VinceSchilling