Elinor Smith from the University of Montana School of Journalism is providing New Media Broadcasters with reports from the Montana legislative session. This is one of her reports:
HELENA — Families and friends of missing people filled four rows of a hearing room in the Capitol Friday, some wiping away tears as proponents of House Bill 18 testified about searching for their loved ones, some of whom still have not been found.
After it passed unanimously through the House, HB 18 is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would put $61,000 of the state’s money toward a grant program to train volunteers in community-led missing persons searches, in the hopes it will provide them the tools they need.
Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, is the sponsor of House Bill 18. He’s joined community searches for missing persons and helped to find a missing boy, a nephew of one of the people at the hearing Friday.
“When somebody becomes missing, I guarantee we’ll be on that database and every other asset that’s at our disposal. We’d be looking to try to find our own people. As I stand here today, it’s a — it’s a push from them folks that are missing because they can’t speak for themselves,” Running Wolf said.
The committee heard testimony from sixteen proponents of the bill, many of which were members of the grassroots search teams that would benefit from the bill.
Arden Pepion was three when she went missing on April 22nd, 2021. Today she would be five. Several proponents of the bill helped search for her, and they said if they had the resources HB 18 would offer, Pepion might have already been found.
“It is now two years since baby Arden went missing, our smallest group … holding hope never gave up. To this day, we are still searching endlessly for baby Arden, in hope that we’ll find her and bring her home for a proper burial. I cannot express enough how beneficial this bill would be for all reservations and missing Indigenous people. We are in … need of proper equipment and trained personnel and it would be beneficial if we had our own search and rescue team and trained canines. I cannot stress enough how this house bill would help our missing indigenous murdered people,” said Rhonda Grant Connelly, a member of the Blackfeet nation who has participated in multiple search efforts for missing people.
Proponents carried signs and posters covered in photos of their missing loved ones. Charlene Sleeper, the lead missing and murdered Indigenous people’s advocate for Southeastern Montana and a search and rescue volunteer since 2018 said law enforcement’s response to missing person cases is not fast enough, especially given Montana’s cold environment.
There were no opponents of the bill. Democratic Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, interrupted testimony between proponents to tell them it was alright if they had to pause while testifying to compose themselves.
According to a Department of Justice report, Indigenous people make up 26% of missing persons cases in Montana. Indigenous people make up only 6.6% of Montana’s population. There are 45 missing Indigenous people in Montana right now, and 22 of them are under the age of 18.
The committee also heard testimony on House Joint Resolution 1, which proposes a study to figure out why Montana children under 18 go missing at such a high rate — with the aim that the data will help identify a root cause and prevent future disappearances. There are currently 43 missing children under the age of 18 in Montana, not including those who turned 18 since they disappeared. That’s about 25% of Montana’s total number of missing people.
HB 18 was requested by the State-Tribal Relations Committee. According to the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Reporting Portal created by the Blackfeet Community College, Indigenous people are four times as likely to go missing in Montana on average.
Last session, a similar version of this bill ran as House Bill 36. The bill made it to the Senate Committee last session before it was tabled over concerns of cost. The committee did not take immediate action on House Bill 18 Friday.