State Investments are Critical to Addressing the High Rates of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women

“Too many of our sisters, mothers, and daughters have been left behind by our legal system,” said Rep. Rae Peppers, sponsor of House Bill 21, an act establishing “Hanna’s Act.”

Last Wednesday, January 30th, supporters of a package of bills drafted to address the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) filled the Capitol. The House Judiciary Committee heard four hours of emotional testimony.

The hallmark bill of the package is House Bill 21, or Hanna’s Act, named for Hanna Harris, a young woman from Lame Deer who was missing for several days before she was found murdered. The bill authorizes the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) to assist with the investigation of all missing persons cases, as well as creates and funds a missing persons specialist within the department. Hanna’s Act would appropriate $100,000 from the general fund to the DOJ for each year of the biennium beginning in July of 2019.

Hanna’s Act comes amid growing concerns surrounding MMIW and the lack of urgency by lawmakers and law enforcement officials to address the issue. In public testimony on Wednesday, Melinda Harris Limberhand, Hanna Harris’s mother, said, “When I reported my daughter missing, I was told by the chief of police, ‘She’s probably scared to come home.’”

Rep. Rae Peppers went on to say that there are misconceptions that women go missing because they are out partying or using drugs and alcohol. “This is a stereotype that we have to get rid of,” she said.

Though awareness around MMIW is growing, data on the scope of violence against American Indian women and girls is insufficient. According to a recent report by the Urban Indian Health Institute, 5,712 cases of MMIW were reported in 2016; however, the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database logged only 116 cases. The same report notes that murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian women and that the rates of violence on reservations can be up to ten times higher than the national average. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 80 percent of American Indian women have experienced violence in their lifetime, and that violence is significantly more likely to be committed by a non-Indian perpetrator.

Shelly Fyant, tribal councilmember for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, urged the committee to take action, stating, “Federal legislation alone will not keep our sisters and our children safe.”

The state has a role to play in curbing the high rates of violence against American Indian women and girls. Proponents of Hanna’s Act stressed the point that violence against women and girls happens across Montana, not only on reservations, and that the rates of violence in Montana are too high to ignore. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, of 71 cities surveyed for MMIW cases, Billings, Montana, ranks 5th for total number of cases and 2nd for number of cases that are not in law enforcement records. Among states, Montana ranks 5th for highest number of MMIW cases.

Sen. Jason Small called Hanna’s Act “a fundamental part of promoting forward movement in Indian Country” and noted that it would be a small price to pay for big results.

Also heard on Wednesday was House Bill 54, which would require all law enforcement authorities, regardless of jurisdiction, to accept a missing persons report within two hours for persons under 21 years of age, and within eight hours for everybody else. The bill is designed to address confusion around jurisdiction and to further help curb the high rates of MMIW.

Paula Castro-Stops, the mother of Henny Scott, the 14-year-old high school freshman whose body was just found a few weeks ago outside Lame Deer, detailed her multiple attempts to file a missing persons report after her daughter disappeared. She believes that, with this legislation, her daughter would have been found alive.

“We must, as legislators, support this package of bills,” said Rep. Rae Peppers in closing.

Colleen Campbell, of Western Native Voice, expressed her pride in the role tribes in Montana are playing to address MMIW. The Legislature must follow suit and take action this legislative session.

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