The state plans to hire a new specialist by July to help facilitate searches to find missing people, a new approach created in legislation named for a Native American woman who died in 2013 after she was missing for several days.
Hanna’s Act took a long route but passed the recently adjourned legislative session by wide margins. It calls for creating a missing persons specialist in the Department of Justice, a position for which Attorney General Tim Fox said Tuesday he has begun recruiting. Fox hopes to start interviews next month and have a person in the role by July 1. The position was funded by the Legislature, after a lengthy battle, and will pay from $23.86-$28.63 an hour.
Hanna's Act was carried by Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer.
Data on missing Native women are unreliable, according to a report produced by legislative staff. There are 60 documented cases in Montana between 1979 and 2018, according to a doctoral student at the University of Lethbridge who is studying the topic and collecting data.
“One of the most pressing concerns we hear about is the disproportionate number of indigenous people who go missing both here in Montana and across the country, and this is unacceptable,” Fox said. “While we've made great strides in how Montana responds to human trafficking, clearly there is work to be done in addressing the challenges that face Indian Country when it comes to human trafficking and missing indigenous persons."
The position will be in the Division of Criminal Investigation. The person will work with local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement on missing persons cases, trying to bridge jurisdictional gaps that often hamstring efforts. Fox said he hopes to have applicants with experience not only in law enforcement and with missing persons, but who have also worked in Indian Country.
Several other bills passed this session to look at the issue of missing and murdered Native women, including the Looping in Native Communities Act from Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby.
The LINC Act creates a missing persons task force with members from Montana's tribes across seven reservations, and the Little Shell Band of Chippewa. The task force's primary duty is to administer the grant program and help identify barriers between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement to improve communication. The intent of the grant program is to create a clearinghouse for reports of missing Native women, and the grant is intended to go to a tribal college to develop the database.
Fox sent letters to each of the tribal communities last week asking for their nominations to the task force. The group's first meeting is June 11 in Helena.
The following day, June 12, the Department of Justice will host a missing persons training seminar, with information for both members of the public and law enforcement. The seminar will include discussions from the Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Attorney for Montana and tribal leadership. Lucy Simpson, director of the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center in Lame Deer, will also speak.
Fox said Tuesday while none of the bills that passed this session make any changes to the jurisdictional barriers that exist among local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement that can lead to problems when Native people go missing, the new position will help bridge communication gaps. Fox also emphasized the importance of preserving tribal sovereignty. While the position is meant to address all missing people in Montana, much of the conversation this session focused on the problem for Native women.
"We have a somewhat unique situation and, unfortunately, sometimes that can give rise to barriers. Sometimes it's inadvertent. We always have to respect the sovereignty of each of those entities. But I think we have individuals who are dedicated to finding ways which those barriers have gotten in in the way, and then making suggestions on how we can overcome them," Fox said. " … It's not just jurisdictional barriers, it's communication barriers and other things that get in the way of actually finding solutions. Our goal will be to break down those barriers."
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Derek Werner, based in Glendive, said the biggest problem he's seen involves sharing information with other agencies.
“I believe (the largest issue) it is just the communication within all the other agencies, all the other brothers in law enforcement (and) working well with all the tribal law enforcement,” Werner said.
Jennifer Viets, Montana's Missing Persons Clearinghouse manager, said she's seen problems with reports being taken and entered into a federal database to track missing persons, but additional legislation that passed this session should help.
“There have been times where family members have contacted the (federal missing persons) clearinghouse, and they've had difficulty with finding the right jurisdiction or law enforcement agency or the missing persons report,” Veits said. “These cases are all unique and can be complicated. You might have a person who lives in Helena, went missing in Billings and their family is in Great Falls. Which law enforcement agency do they go to to file a report and and to get assistance with that case?”
House Bills 20 and 54, which also passed this session, clarify when law enforcement agencies must file a missing persons report.
“We want to make sure that we have clear pathways for reporting, and consistent ways in which we can report accurate information,” Fox said. “ … If they are communicating well, we can all work together to find people before harm comes to them.”