FINDING COMMON GROUND: Missing Persons

By 
Denise Rivette
Wednesday, December 14, 2022

The multi-agency identification in November and ongoing investigation of skeletal remains found 18 years ago south of Red Lodge of a person who had been missing 48 years demonstrates Montana law enforcement’s commitment to finding the missing, identifying remains and resolving the mysteries that surround them. According to 2022 World Population Review, Montana currently ranks 12th among the 50 states with the highest per capita rate of missing persons. A 2020 Montana Department of Justice (MDOJ) report analyzing data from 2017 through 2019 revealed that an average of 1,856 people are reported missing each year and that 78% of those people are found within one week. The MDOJ reports that Native Americans comprised 30% of all missing people in Montana in 2021 even though they make up only 6.7% of the population. There are approximately 176 people listed as missing with the MDOJ’s Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse (https:// app.doj.mt.gov/apps/missingPersonDatabase/search) as we enter the holiday season. There is currently one open missing person case in Carbon County, three in Stillwater County and twelve in Big Horn County (home of the majority of the Crow Reservation and part of the Northern Cheyenne).

What are our senators at the Federal level doing to improve the missing persons situation in Montana? Where do they find common ground?

“The Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Crisis has affected far too many families in Montana, which is why I’m continuing to push for meaningful, bipartisan solutions at the federal level. Laws like Savanna’s Act and the Not Invisible Act are important pieces to solving this puzzle, but it’s critical that we keep up the fight to pass additional laws that will give us the tools to solve this crisis once and for all. With the help of Tribes in Montana, I’ll keep pushing to ensure that our law enforcement officers have the resources they need to target offenders and ensure survivors have access to critical services as they work to get back on their feet.” – Senator Jon Tester “The epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women plaguing Tribal communities across Montana is devastating. I remain committed to working with our Montana tribes, law enforcement and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to find solutions to this crisis and bring the families and communities affected the justice and safety they deserve.” – Senator Steve Daines In addition to their support of law enforcement efforts in general, which will be explored in a future article, Senators Daines and Tester have worked together to leverage their positions on the Indian Affairs Committee to craft legislation to improve the handling of cases involving Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). A summary of their accomplishments follows.

In Feb. 2019 our senators cosponsored the Studying the Missing and Murdered Indian Crisis Act of 2019 which specifically directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full review of how federal agencies respond to reports of missing and murdered Native Americans and recommend solutions based on their findings. It also directed the GAO to make recommendations on how to address economic, social, and other underlying factors that are fueling this crisis. This report is now complete and informing the senators’ approach to future legislative efforts.

Our senators also co-sponsored and championed the Not Invisible Act on its way to becoming law. This law requires intergovernmental coordination to combat violent crimes across tribal nations. The Act specifically requires the Department of Interior (DOI) to designate a person within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services to coordinate violent crime prevention efforts across federal agencies who must submit an annual report summarizing coordination activities and recommendations for improving those efforts. In addition, according to govtrack.us, “Interior and the Department of Justice (DOJ) must (1) establish a joint commission on violent crime within Indian lands and against Indians, and (2) submit a written response to the recommendations developed by the joint commission.”

Most recently, our senators have been ensuring implementation of the Not Invisible Act as well as their co-sponsored Savanna’s Act, a bipartisan bill that addresses the MMIW epidemic. They were both signed into law in Oct. 2020. Savanna’s Act requires the DOJ to strengthen training, coordination, data collection and other guidelines related to cases of murdered or missing Native Americans. Specifically, the bill requires the DOJ to provide training to law enforcement agencies on data entry, educate the public on the database, help tribes and Indigenous communities enter information in the database, develop guidelines for response to missing or murdered Indigenous people, provide technical assistance to tribes and report data on missing or murdered Native Americans. It also established “a commission composed of relevant federal agencies, Tribal leaders, Tribal law enforcement, mental health providers, survivors, and state and local law enforcement to develop recommendations on improving the federal response to MMIW, human trafficking, and violent crime in Indian Country.”

Tribes across Montana and the nation agree that this landmark legislation is a great step towards combatting the MMIW crisis.

In a showing of fellowship and commitment, every year Daines and Tester introduce a bipartisan Senate resolution designating May 5th the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. This is one of the ways they fulfill what they consider to be their duty to shed light on these issues as they continue to work towards bipartisan solutions.

Access their websites (www.daines.senate.gov and www.tester. senate.gov) to learn more about what your senators are working on and to contact them directly.

Denise Rivette is a reporter for the Carbon County News in Red Lodge. The Carbon County News, along with 14 other Montana newspapers, belongs to the Adams Publishing Group (APG). The Dillon Tribune is also a member of APG.

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