Montana’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force met for the second time in Great Falls, Montana this weekend. The task force focused on the management of databases to find people and overlaps and gaps in jurisdictions for who is spearheading the search.
Yellowstone Public Radio caught Jennifer Viets on her way back to Helena. She’s the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse Manager.
The Clearinghouse is a public database online that lists every missing persons case that is currently open with Montana law enforcement.
She talked about some of the challenges with keeping the clearinghouse up-to-date and complete.
"We want to make sure we have every missing person in the database, so we have a complete picture of who’s missing," Viets said. "It’s pretty hard to find people if we don’t know they’re missing in the first place. So we want to make sure that communities trust they can report missing persons. We want to stop the myth about a 24-hour or 48-hour waiting period. That does not exist. A family member can contact law enforcement at any time to report someone as missing."
She encourages people to report missing persons immediately because delays only hurt the search, plus it’s not a crime to be missing.
Native people in Montana tend to go missing at rates that outpace their share of the state population. American Indians currently account for about 21 percent of all missing persons cases in the state of Montana while only accounting for 6.6 percent of the state population, according to U.S. Census data from last July. That said, it’s widely assumed that many missing indigenous people go unreported. Deputy State Attorney General Melissa Schlichting said even law enforcement officials are often confused about who enters a missing person into database.
Melissa Schlichting: Particularly today what we talked about was wanting to try to establish or collect a complete list of all the missing indigenous persons in the state of Montana, and how best to make sure that we’re getting all of the information, so that we have a clearer picture of who all is missing.
Olivia Reingold: Tell me about, when you’re working to define the scope of the problem, what are some of the challenges in doing that?
MS: We have a number of Indian reservations within the state of Montana, and we have a number of federal partners that operate within those jurisdictions, as well as our state law enforcement and others who also operate within Indian Country as well. So it’s figuring out the right jurisdiction and who the reporting law enforcement agency is going to be. Who the investigating law enforcement agency is going to be can sometimes be challenging to people who are trying to report someone as missing. They don’t necessarily know—should they go to tribal law enforcement? Should they go to state law enforcement? Should they go to the FBI? If it occurs on the reservations but involves a non-Indian, then who has jurisdiction? Those sorts of issues make that very tricky.
OR: What does that mean in a practical sense? What were you hearing from tribal representatives about how that jurisdictional overlaps plays out in these communities?
MS: Primarily what we heard today was that people don’t know where they can report, and whether or not they’re only required to report to tribal law enforcement. One of the things we really clarified for all of the tribal representatives today is that with the passage of House Bill 54 and House Bill 20, you can make a report to any law enforcement agency within the state of Montana, including county and local law enforcement for a missing persons report, regardless of where the person went missing. Even if a person on a reservation goes missing, they can go to their county law enforcement or their local police department and make a report. They can also go to their tribal law enforcement as well. They’re not restricted to one or the other.
OR: Tell me about how that compares to peoples’ past options.
MS: I think the perception is still out there—and we heard from some tribal representatives today—that they still were feeling there’s this misperception that people on the reservation can’t report missing people to anyone other than a tribal law enforcement.
The task force is also tasked with awarding a tribal college a $25,000 matching grant to create a network to help Montana tribes identify, report and find missing Native Americans. They’ll pick that back up at their next meeting on September 27th in Billings.
Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio’s Report for America corps member.