GREAT FALLS – A study released by the Urban Indian Health Institute in November 2018 shows that Montana has the fifth highest rate of missing and murdered indigenous women (MMIW) of all 50 states.
That same research ranked Great Falls in the top 10 cities with the highest number of MMIW cases not in law enforcement records.
Following the high-profile coverage of several such incidents, such as that of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, officials in Cascade County are striving to change this reality.
The Cascade County Human Trafficking Task Force was initially formed several years ago, to “help coordinate the efforts of law enforcement, service providers & community groups in Cascade County […] in their work to investigate & prosecute traffickers, to assist victims, and to increase awareness & prevention.”
Following their latest meeting at the Great Falls YWCA, however, the task force decided to refocus its efforts to also include the missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic.
The Cascade County Human Trafficking and MMIW Task Force, as it is now known, will incorporate voices from the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office, the Cascade County Juvenile Detention Center (JDC), and Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS). The task force’s primary objectives are fostering education, raising awareness, and bolstering prevention efforts on the local level.
A sampling of task force members includes Jesse Slaughter, the Cascade County Sheriff; Linda Mettam, a community activist and JDC board member; Melissa Belderrain of A21, a nonprofit organization combating modern day slavery; and Jordan Forster, the Indian Education for All immersion coach for GFPS.
Newly-minted Task Force Chair Shanna Bulik-Chism, who also serves as administrator of the Cascade County JDC, said the re-branding comes after a realization of just how closely-related the issues of human trafficking and missing and murdered indigenous women are.
“We figured that instead of trying to develop two different task forces, we could make them one task force, because they really do go hand-in-hand,” Bulik-Chism said. “Drugs, missing and murdered indigenous women, and human trafficking/sex trafficking all seem to kind of run in the same fields.”
“We personally have felt it here at the Juvenile Detention Center with the number of children that we’ve seen go missing,” Bulik-Chism said. “I have youth in the facility that are from Browning, Rocky Boy, Boxer, and Fort Belknap.”Bulik-Chism has served as a member of the task force for almost a year. But her day job, at the JDC, is wherein the intersection of these highly stigmatized issues has hit home for her.
She cites the lack of communal attention to both crises as a cause of the recent worsening— and need for a task force. In part due to the advent of the internet, Montanans approach the problems with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.
“It is [happening] in our community, it’s just that it’s not splashed on the front page; we’re not seeing it out on our street corners,” she noted.
Bulik-Chism continued, “Right now, there are bills in front of the legislature to make sure that when someone is missing, that’s reported more quickly […] So if you see something suspicious, then call. A call doesn’t cost anything.”
With respect to a plan of action, the task force is hoping to make its voice heard, loudly and clearly, within the coming months.
“We’re going to plaster the community with posters, we’re going to have community events, we’re really going to get our voice out there, and the more people we can have join this movement, the better we can be at saving these young women and girls,” Bulik-Chism said.
Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter echoes this same urging of precautionary measures, encouraging all Montanans to pay attention to the goings-on around them.
“We’re not going to hold you accountable for thinking something’s a bad situation [if] it’s not— if you see something, report it,” Slaughter told MTN News. “Be aware and be vigilant.”
Slaughter, who played a role in the task force’s realignment, believes the missing and murdered indigenous women epidemic is a “very important component” when tackling human trafficking.
“In the state of Montana, you typically get more money per sex act than you do, say, in Washington, or a bigger populated state that’s near us,” he added. “Traffickers from out of state are coming here, and I believe that contributes to our population of missing and murdered indigenous women.”
The task force meetings, in which discussions occur about how to combat this criminal activity, are held every third Thursday of the month at 1 p.m. at the YWCA in Great Falls. Any interested community members are encouraged to attend, and no prior experience is necessary.
“It’s all of our responsibility to protect our children and a vulnerable population within our community,” Slaughter said.