Cheryl Eagle’s brother, Leonard Eagle, was murdered in Butte four years ago. She believes the killing was partially motivated by meth use.
On Friday in Billings, Cheryl Eagle asked Montana's Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force what considerations were being made for missing persons cases that may be related to drug use, addiction, and human trafficking. Her questions came during the task force’s third meeting since its creation.
“I do know that it is a big reason why our people are being murdered and come up missing,” she said, speaking of meth.
Eagle, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe, is also part of the Indian People’s Action Organization, a Butte-based group working to address issues like racial and social inequities that surround Native Americans.
“Specific to missing persons, there is a nexus to all of it. Drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, child abduction — it’s not just one thing. They are all connected,” said Misty LaPlant, the Montana Department of Justice missing persons specialist. “I agree with you. We do need to address all these problems.”
LaPlant said all those factors will be discussed by MIPTF, and they’ll try to find a solution. But, she pointed out, the task force is still in its early stages.
The task force was created by the Looping in Native Communities Act, or LINC, passed in the senate this year. The bill also provided $25,000 in grants to be awarded to a tribal college to create a database of missing Native Americans.
In addition, the Montana Department of Justice hired a missing persons specialist specifically to oversee efforts to report and track missing persons cases. That specialist, LaPlant, also sits on the task force.
This meeting was LaPlant’s first. Hired in early September, LaPlant said she’s already begun working with families and law enforcement agencies to bring transparency, and has reached out to local law enforcement agencies to assist with missing persons.
Much of the meeting discussed the databases available to the public and law enforcement and the need to report missing persons quickly. NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, is a good resource for family members, said Jennifer Viets, manager of Montana's Missing Persons Clearinghouse.
Unlike other databases that are only available to law enforcement, members of the public can report missing persons who would later be verified by the DOJ through law enforcement. The person reporting can then sign up to receive alerts if anything changes in the case.
NamUS can also take dental records, or build a DNA profile from family members. Another way to streamline reporting missing persons is House Bill 54, which passed this legislative session, LaPlant said.
It mandates that all law enforcement can accept a missing person report, regardless of where or when the person went missing. Law enforcement must also report a missing adult to the state within 8 hours of receiving the report, and within 2 hours if the person is under 21. However, the agency that first reports the missing person may not be the investigating agency, LaPlant clarified.
If law enforcement fails to report, or fails to take the case seriously, the family can go to the law enforcement's specific supervisor to complain, LaPlant said.
For example, complaints against the Bureau of Indian Affairs would go through its internal affairs. For sheriffs, their supervisors would likely be county commissioners.
If that fails, then people may come directly to her, LaPlant said.
“When I worked up in Blackfeet, I know the jurisdictional barriers that sometimes happen with the reservations and the state and reporting missing persons,” she said.
Representative Rae Peppers, who carried Hanna’s Act, the bill responsible for hiring a missing persons specialist with the DOJ, asked if the DOJ would provide training to towns bordering reservations. Those are the towns that may be dealing with jurisdictional gaps.
The DOJ will hold a training on reporting and dealing with missing persons, but law enforcement is not required to attend, said Deputy Attorney General Melissa Schlichting. The next training with be Oct. 16 in Billings.
The task force also reviewed a first draft for a grant application that would fund a tribal college to set up and maintain a database of missing Native Americans.
Despite expressing some criticism that law enforcement were not required to attend training, or to be held accountable if they fail to report a missing person, Eagle, who has dealt with law enforcement and the loss of a loved one, left the meeting feeling hopeful.
“I believe it’s a beginning,” she said.