HELENA - The Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force wants to study why Montana youth made up 80% of missing Indigenous person cases in 2021.
In 2021, Indigenous youth made up most of all Indigenous missing person cases, according to data released Friday by the Montana Department of Justice and first reported in the Missoulian.
The Montana DOJ Missing Persons Data Project reported a similar rate of missing youth in 2020, when the data project looked at cases reported between 2017 and 2019. During those years, people under the age of 18, regardless of race, made up 81% of all missing person cases in Montana.
The Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force is a program under Montana DOJ Special Services Bureau Chief Dana Toole.
“We don’t really know exactly why we have that many missing youth in Montana,” Toole said.
Overall, the percentage of missing Indigenous person cases in 2021 increased to 30%, according to Montana DOJ’s 2021 data, up from an average of about 26% between 2017 and 2019. Indigenous people go missing at a rate four times higher than non-Indigenous people in Montana.
This month, the missing Indigenous persons task force recommended the legislature’s Interim State-Tribal Relations Committee introduce a bill next session to authorize a study of missing youth in Montana, Toole said.
Already, the data gathered by the task force on missing Indigenous person cases helped to better respond to missing person cases and revealed important statistics, such as that on average, Indigenous men going missing at a similar rate to Indigenous women, Toole said.
By studying missing person cases, the task force helped tribal, state and county governments identify problems and make informed decisions about how to address them, Toole said. She said she hoped a study of missing youth in Montana would provide accurate reasons so many kids go missing.
Ellie Bundy, presiding officer for the task force, said by digging into what circumstances precede an indigenous youth going missing, lawmakers can be better informed about how to address the problem.
“We’re talking about youth, and they can just be put into so many vulnerable situations,” Bundy said. “So how can we better find out what’s going on with our youth? How can we protect them? How can we better inform them?”
By tackling missing Indigenous persons under the age of 18, the task force would be addressing 80% of the problem, Bundy said.
Overall, the percentage of missing Indigenous person cases in 2021 increased to 30%, according to Montana DOJ’s 2021 data, up from an average of about 26% between 2017 and 2019
However, as of May 2022, most missing Indigenous person cases from 2021 were closed and the Montana Department of Justice noted that the missing Indigenous person cases clearance rate was 99% rate last year. In cases involving non-native persons, the clearance rate is 98.5%. However, eight missing Indigenous person cases reported in 2021 remained open and five of those cases involved people under the age of 18.
One common misconception the task force wants to correct is people do not need to wait to report someone missing, Toole said.
“That is a myth. It’s not true,” Toole said. “As soon as someone realizes that a person is missing, that we don’t know where they are and we don’t know if they’re safe, those reports can be made directly to law enforcement.”
People with information about an active missing persons case or wishing to report someone missing can call their local law enforcement or the Montana Missing Person’s Clearinghouse at (406) 444-2800.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly compared two data sets.