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Montana lawmakers hear bill to extend and expand missing persons task force

Tribal Flag Plaza
Tyson Running Wolf
Posted at 5:36 PM, Jan 18, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-18 21:07:20-05

HELENA — Advocates say Montana has made important steps in addressing the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people, thanks in part to a state task force. Now they want that task force’s work to continue.

On Wednesday, state lawmakers held a hearing on a bill that would extend and expand the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, which began its work in 2019. It’s a key piece of a much broader statewide effort to respond to the issue.

“The shining star in the entire United States is the effort of our great state,” said Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning.

The task force is currently authorized through June 30, 2023. Running Wolf is sponsoring House Bill 163, which would extend that date to 2025.

Tyson Running Wolf

As of Wednesday, the Montana Department of Justice’s Missing Persons Database reported 176 missing people in the state. Forty-five of them – about one quarter – are indigenous.

The task force is charged with identifying “jurisdictional barriers” among federal, state, local and tribal agencies, identifying causes of the MMIP crisis and recommending strategies for improving reporting and investigation of missing person cases.

Dana Toole is the special services bureau chief for the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation, which oversees the task force.

“One of our members said, ‘Our work is not done. The problem of missing indigenous persons in Montana is long-standing and complex. This task force has done good work, it is making a difference, and we need to continue the work,’” she said.

The task force currently includes representatives from all eight federally recognized tribes in the state, as well as a Department of Justice missing persons expert and representatives from the Montana Highway Patrol and Montana Attorney General’s Office. HB 163 would add someone from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Ellie Bundy, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal councilwoman, is the presiding officer of the task force. She said an OPI representative would bring an important perspective, because they’re focusing on ways to respond to missing youth. She said data from 2017 to 2019 showed 80% of missing persons cases in Montana involve people younger than 18.

HB 163 also gives the task force the authority to continue the Looping in Native Communities, or LINC, grant program, which helped set up a new reporting portal for missing indigenous people at mmipmt.com. It would provide $50,000 for LINC and just over $205,000 for a full-time administrator for the task force.

Toole said having a full-time staff member would help the task force take on important work that still needs to be done, like analyzing more recent case data and increasing statewide outreach and information.

Leaders said if the task force is extended, one of their top priorities will be to work with all Montana tribes to establish individual “community response plans.” That is part of a federal initiative, encouraging tribes nationwide to develop local plans for how to respond to a missing person report. Plans will include guidelines for law enforcement agencies, victim services, media and public communications and community outreach.

Bundy said the CSKT have already completed their plan, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe has started work on one.

“It was a really helpful process for us, and we’re hoping to have all tribes go through that process,” she said.

One point of discussion Wednesday was whether the task force should be renewed for longer than two years. Some supporters said the MMIP issue wasn’t going to be solved quickly, and they’d prefer not to have to come back every session for an extension. Others argued bringing it back before the Legislature every two years kept the issue at the top of people’s minds and gave them a chance to fine-tune the program.

Bundy said her preference would be to extend the authorization for longer, giving the task force more time to concentrate on their work before they have to shift their focus to renewal.

No one testified in opposition to HB 163 on Wednesday. The committee did not take any immediate action.