GREAT FALLS— According to a study released by the Urban Indian Health Institute in November 2018, Montana has the fifth highest rate of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) of all 50 states. That same research ranked Great Falls in the top 10 cities with the highest number of MMIW cases not in law enforcement records.
Following the high-profile coverage of several such incidents, such as the disappearance of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, officials in Cascade County are working to change this reality.
The Cascade County Human Trafficking Task Force was initially formed several years ago, to “help coordinate the efforts of law enforcement, service providers & community groups in Cascade County […] in their work to investigate & prosecute traffickers, to assist victims, and to increase awareness & prevention.” Following their latest meeting at the Great Falls YWCA, however, the task force decided to refocus its efforts to also include the missing and murdered Indigenous women crisis.
The Cascade County Human Trafficking and MMIW Task Force, as it is now known, will incorporate voices from the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, the Cascade County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC), and Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS). The task force’s primary objectives are fostering education, raising awareness, and bolstering prevention efforts on the local level.
A sampling of task force members includes Jesse Slaughter, the Cascade County Sheriff; Linda Mettam, a community activist and JDC board member; Melissa Belderrain of A21, a nonprofit organization combating modern-day slavery; and Jordan Forster, the Indian Education for All immersion coach for GFPS.
Zachary Schermele reporting for MTN