HELENA – People from around Montana gave emotional testimony before a state House committee on Wednesday about how they have been affected by what they call an “epidemic” of missing and murdered Native Americans — many of them women and children.
“It’s a crisis,” said Rose Harris, whose sister Hanna Harris was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in 2013. “We’re reaching out to you guys now, asking you for help.”
Harris was one of a number of family members and other advocates who testified before the House Judiciary Committee, in support of a package of legislation intended to help address these cases.
Many of those in attendance wore red, a color that has come to symbolize the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
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“They’re asking for our support as legislators, to step up for them and look for justice,” said Rep. Rae Peppers (D-Lame Deer).
Peppers is sponsoring two of the bills in the legislative package.
The first is House Bill 21, called “Hanna’s Act” in honor of Hanna Harris. It would provide for a new missing persons specialist at the Montana Department of Justice, who would work closely with local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies on missing persons cases.
The specialist would also be responsible for managing the state’s missing persons database and organizing training for law enforcement authorities on how to handle missing persons cases.
Malinda Harris Limberhand, Hanna Harris’ mother, was among the people who testified in support of HB 21.
“We need somebody to come in and help us out,” she said. “I’m trying to do my part also, by standing up and speaking out for the people who have lost their loved ones.”
Peppers is also sponsoring House Bill 54, which would require all law enforcement agencies in the state to open a report “without delay” when someone is reported missing unless they know where the person is or that another agency already has a missing person report open.
It would also require missing person reports to be entered into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database within eight hours — and within two hours is the person is under 21 years old.
The Montana Legislature has no power to compel federal or tribal authorities to comply with these requirements, but the bill would encourage them to “work cooperatively to report and investigate cases of missing persons in the state.”
Hanna Harris was missing for about five days before her body was found. Last month, 14-year-old Henny Scott was found dead near Lame Deer, about three weeks since she had last been seen.
Harris and Scott’s mothers both said authorities did not immediately open missing persons reports because they suspected their daughters might be partying and could return on their own.
“If these limitations were put in place, I strongly believe my daughter would have been found alive,” said Paula Castro-Stops, Scott’s mother.
The committee also heard testimony on House Bill 48, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop (D- Livingston). That bill, proposed by the Department of Justice, would state that a tribal court conviction for partner or family member assault can be counted as a prior offense.
Currently, Montana treats a first and second conviction for PFMA as a misdemeanor, and the third and subsequent convictions as felonies.
Convictions in most Montana courts and most courts from other states can be counted, but those in Montana tribes’ courts cannot.
Prosecutors said, without this change, they could be forced to try someone for a first offense, even if they have already had multiple domestic violence convictions in tribal court.
SK Rossi, advocacy and policy director for the ACLU of Montana, said the ACLU was reluctantly opposing HB 48, because of concerns that not all tribal courts provide the same rights for defendants and that the definitions of partner or family member assault might not be consistent from tribe to tribe.
Rossi said the ACLU’s concerns might be addressed if the state consulted with tribes and got their support before the bill moved forward.
Following Wednesday’s hearing, more than 100 people gathered in the Capitol Rotunda for a rally to highlight the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.
“We were quiet for too, too long,” said Rose Harris. “Now we’re moving together and showing everybody that this needs to stop.”
Harris Limberhand and other family members of victims then joined Gov. Steve Bullock and lawmakers for a news conference. Bullock estimated there were more than 30 missing or murdered Native women in Montana last year.
“We must act so that this epidemic is unheard of in our state — and country’s — future,” he said.
Those who came to Helena to testify said they’ll do whatever they can to make sure this issue is not forgotten.
“We are the voice, and we will not be silenced anymore,” said Rynalea Whiteman Pena, the president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.
The House Judiciary Committee also heard testimony Wednesday on another bill related to Native issues.
House Bill 40, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy (D-Crow Agency) would provide money for grants to promote “cultural programming” — traditional practices intended to help support recovery and reduce recidivism for American Indian offenders who have been released from jail or are on community supervision.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News