Missing poster

A missing poster for Ashley HeavyRunner Loring is posted to the entrance of a grocery store on the Blackfeet Reservation. At first, her relatives say, tribal police suggested Ashley was old enough to take off on her own. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribal police headed up the initial investigation. The FBI later took over the case. 

A Busby lawmaker’s proposal for a grant program to establish a database of missing Native people among Montana’s Indian reservations failed to advance from a state legislative panel Wednesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to table Republican Sen. Jason Small’s measure after Republicans on the panel questioned whether the costs should be supported by the state, rather than the tribes themselves.

Reached by phone after the vote, Small said he was working to have his Senate Bill 312 reconsidered, saying he believed the money to support the program would ultimately be available.

The bill would create the “Looping in Native Communities” grant program, which would allow one of the tribal colleges to create and maintain a database of missing Native people in Montana. It would also provide smaller, noncompetitive grants to allow each tribe to designate a tribal agency that would be responsible for taking reports of missing people on the reservation and adding them to the statewide database.

The public would be able to view those missing person reports on a website, which would also be created and maintained by the tribal college awarded the larger grant. The state Board of Crime Control would administer the new program.

Small said Tuesday he was motivated to introduce the bill after hearing from constituents who expressed dissatisfaction with the way local law enforcement agencies handle requests by family members to file missing person reports. His district includes the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, where 14-year-old Henny Scott was found dead in December after her family said local police failed to take their concerns seriously.

“If somebody comes up missing, the community can go to that one person, who can file a report to that central hub,” Small told the committee Wednesday. “One of the problems we’ve run into thus far is there’s a long lapse between somebody going missing and when they can file a report.”

Several committee members, including Republicans who ultimately voted against the bill, expressed support for the idea during the hearing.

“I think it’s a creative idea. It’s an opportunity to try something out,” said Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula.

Small agreed with Sands’ suggestion that the bill be altered to make it a pilot project that would require re-authorization after two years.

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But the potential costs proved to be a sticking point for Republicans on the committee, five of whom voted against advancing the bill. That motion died on a tie vote.

“I don’t see any reason why the tribes can’t already be doing this,” said Sen. Jennifer Fielder, R-Thompson Falls said. “They receive gobs of money from the federal government.”

The bill’s fiscal note did not provide any estimated costs for the program, but indicated that the state general fund would be on the hook to provide for a full-time employee to administer the program.

Small said he disagreed with that finding.

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