HELENA — State lawmakers got an update Thursday on the implementation of new laws aimed at addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people in Montana – an issue many leaders have called a crisis.
Three members of the state’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force testified before the State-Tribal Relations Committee where they talked about the progress that’s been made since the Montana Legislature passed a package of bills on the crisis in 2019.
The task force was created by Senate Bill 312. Members were charged with identifying barriers between the law enforcement agencies that deal with missing persons cases and working on ways to improve communication and investigations in those cases.
“Whatever we can do – both in an individual perspective within our own communities and then also as representatives of the state – to help to foster those communications and to help law enforcement work better together, and recognize that it isn’t about your turf or my turf, it’s about a missing person,” said Melissa Schlichting, a deputy attorney general and presiding officer of the task force.
SB 312 also called for the creation of the “Looping in Native Communities” network – a new system that would provide an alternative way for families to report missing Native Americans, especially if they didn’t feel comfortable approaching law enforcement directly. The information could then be shared with other agencies as needed.
The task force is set to award Blackfeet Community College $25,000 for the implementation of the LINC network. Other tribal colleges could then be added to the system. Eventually, leaders said the information from the network could be used to send push notifications to a smartphone app.
Task force members have also discussed some recommendations for possible future steps to address the missing person issue, including hiring additional investigators at the Montana Department of Justice who could be called in when local law enforcement asked for more help.
Another recommendation was for the creation of a review team – similar to existing commissions on deaths linked to domestic violence – that would take deeper looks at individual missing persons cases.
Tina Chamberlain, the DOJ’s LINC coordinator, said the team would hold confidential meetings, where they would be able to fully discuss these cases without violating privacy.
“You do such a deep dive into the case, and you really do hear from all of the parties that are involved,” she said. “I think that’s where you’re going to find the information that’s needed to identify what the problems are.”
The task force has held a number of listening sessions around Montana, to hear what people in the communities affected by these cases want to see change.
“When you hear these families talk, and you hear the stories, it’s devastating, and it’s heartbreaking for everybody,” said Misty LaPlant, the DOJ’s missing persons specialist. “It puts you in that mindset to be motivated to do more.”
One of those affected family members, Paulette Not Afraid, spoke at Thursday’s meeting. Her grand-niece was 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid, whose body was found near a rest area in Big Horn County, weeks after she had been reported missing.
Paulette Not Afraid pointed to House Bill 54, another of the 2019 package of bills, which said all missing person reports must be entered into a national database within eight hours, and within two hours if the missing person is under 21 years old.
She said that alone was not enough, and that law enforcement agencies needed to bring in additional resources sooner.
“We need justice,” she said. “By saying ‘We need justice,’ we need resources. The first phone call is the one that’s so important. You say two hours, you say eight hours – those hours do not matter. When someone is missing, it matters now, this second.”
The State-Tribal Relations Committee also heard testimony Thursday on obstacles to American Indian voting in Montana.
One concern had been that the Montana Secretary of State’s Office’s voter registration form did not say that tribal identification was an acceptable way to establish someone’s residency. Dana Corson, the office’s elections director, confirmed they would accept tribal IDs and said it will be added to future forms.
The committee also discussed options for voters who do not have a standard street address – a common issue on Montana reservations.
People who have worked with voters on the Navajo Nation in Utah said they have begun using “plus codes” – a combination of letters and numbers that are calculated from latitude and longitude coordinates. They said the plus codes can serve as a credible alternative in areas without officially named roads.