Montana needs tools to investigate cases of missing native women

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It’s not safe to be an Indian woman in Montana.

These words come as no surprise to many of us. It is our lived experience that Native American women are more likely to go missing, more likely to be murdered, and less likely to have justice in our state.

It is our lived experience that when we seek justice for native women and children who go missing, law enforcement may not take action for weeks — if at all. It is devastating. Right now, we are facing an epidemic of missing and murdered women, many of them native, in the state of Montana.

That is why the Indian Caucus is leading the charge in the 2019 Legislative session on passing laws to protect and prioritize missing and murdered indigenous women. It is a hidden epidemic that has permeated all aspects of our lives.

The data and the research on missing and murdered indigenous women in Montana have been nearly non-existent. When native women go missing, the cases are regularly under-reported. The lack of reliable data, and the lack of formal studies on violence against women in Indian Country, has made it difficult to address this widespread epidemic.

The problem begins when these cases are actually reported, we see evidence of our legal system failing native women — their lack of action can lead to serious, and even fatal, outcomes.

If you talk to the family members and friends of missing native women in Montana, you will hear countless examples of families encountering indifference and delays from law enforcement when they file a missing persons report.

Local law enforcement tells us that when our loved ones are missing, there aren’t enough resources to look for them or jurisdictional issues complicate their ability to take action. The FBI, the DEA, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, often are in the same position.

Sadly when this happens, our loved ones are treated as “just another Indian woman” gone missing. Their cases become cold before they are ever properly investigated.

There is no clearer evidence of this than with the recent heartbreaking disappearance of Henny Scott, a high school freshman from Lame Deer. Henny’s family immediately reported her disappearance to law enforcement — but it took nearly two weeks for Henny’s missing person’s report to be broadcast to the public despite the fact she was a minor.

For Henny, a delayed response from local and federal law enforcement may have cost her her life.

Montana law enforcement needs better tools to investigate cases of missing native women and children to ensure that our families and communities are kept whole. There is no statewide database to track these cases. Often, the different municipal, state, federal, and tribal law enforcement agencies are unable to coordinate their efforts, leading to delays in action.

It’s time to do something about this crisis. This isn’t a “reservation” problem, and this isn’t a Native American problem—this is a Montana problem.

We urge the legislature to pass Hanna’s Act, which would require the Department of Justice to employ a missing persons specialist to assist with all county, state, municipal, and tribal law enforcement agencies in pursuing missing persons cases. Hanna’s Act would take the first step towards making sure missing Native women do not fall through the cracks of our legal system.

We also urge the legislature to pass HB 20 and HB 54, which would make crucial fixes to our missing persons report system. The bills would require any law enforcement agency in Montana to submit a missing persons report, and would expedite the process once a missing persons report has been filed.

Native women are Montanans. Our lives matter. This session, we will do the work that needs to be done to seek justice for our mothers, sisters, children, aunties, and neighbors.

Rep. Rae Peppers (HD-41), Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (HD-42), House Democratic Whip Rep. Shane Morigeau (HD-95), Rep. Barbara Bessette (HD-24), Rep. Marvin Weatherwax (HD-15), Rep. Bridget Smith (HD-31), Rep. Jade Bahr (HD-50), Rep. Tyson Running Wolf (HD-16), Rep. Marvin Weatherwax Jr. (HD-15), Sen. Susan Webber (SD-8), Sen. Frank Smith (SD-16), and Sen. Jason Small (SD-21) are members of the Indian Caucus for the 2019 legislative session.

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