HELENA – A Montana legislative committee has advanced a package of proposals to address the issue of missing people, especially women, in Indian Country.
On Friday, the State-Tribal Relations Committee held its last meeting before the 2019 legislative session. Members voted on a number of proposed bills they’ll put before the Legislature.
The committee also approved a report, focusing on missing persons, human trafficking and violence against women in Indian Country. It’s an issue lawmakers and other leaders are now calling an “epidemic.”
Committee members backed five bills dealing with missing persons cases. The first is named “Hanna’s Act,” in honor of Hanna Harris, a 21-year-old Lame Deer woman murdered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013. It would clarify that the Montana Department of Justice can assist in any missing persons case, regardless of the person’s age. It would also add a missing persons specialist at the department.
“Even though we’re calling it Hanna’s Act, this means all missing persons across the state of Montana,” said Democratic Rep. Rae Peppers of Lame Deer, who has worked closely with Harris’ family. “We’re looking after all of them that are missing.”
Another bill would require all law enforcement authorities in the state to accept missing persons reports without delay, and forward them to the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. While the Legislature only has authority over state, county and city agencies, committee members said they want to encourage federal and tribal officials to follow the same procedures.
Lawmakers said they spoke to families of missing people who felt authorities didn’t take their concerns seriously at first.
The other proposed bills would require law enforcement to file a missing child report when a child is taken or kept from a custodial parent or guardian, set up a voluntary directory of school photographs that can be used if a child is missing, and call for a study of options for youth who repeatedly run away from home.
Rep. Susan Webber, a Democrat from Browning, is not a member of the committee, but spoke during the public comment period. She said she has seen years of cases where Native American women went missing – from a neighbor of hers in 1972 to Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, who disappeared last year.
“Families still care for them; families still look for them,” she said. “I’m glad now we’re finally doing something about it.”
The committee also heard testimony from Bill Lecompte, acting special agent in charge for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement in most of Montana and Wyoming. He told lawmakers the agency is already following many of their suggestions, including immediately opening missing persons cases. But he said they struggle with getting enough resources to investigate those cases, since law enforcement also has to work on other serious crimes.
“All the tribes are doing the best they can to serve the communities they’re assigned to,” he said.
Lecompte said his agency takes all missing persons reports seriously. He said one concern, though, is that there is often a delay in the initial report.
“A delayed report on anything is very difficult to solve,” he said.
According to the committee’s report, less than seven percent of Montana’s population is American Indian, but 25 percent of the people reported missing were American Indian. The percentages are even higher for women and children.
The report says it is difficult to get reliable data on the number of missing and murdered indigenous women, but a doctoral students in Canada found at least 60 in Montana between 1979 and 2018. Most of those were in just the last five years. They suggest social media means more individual missing persons’ cases are now known.
Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy of Crow Agency, the committee’s chair, said the issues of missing people and violent crimes are difficult to tackle, but that it was important to do something to address them.
“Certainly we’ve made some steps forward, but I do know that we don’t have all the solutions yet,” she said. “I think that the most important thing is to have everyone be aware of the situation.”