Advocates fill Capitol, call for heightened response to missing, murdered indigenous women

Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, sits in the middle of a packed room in the Montana Capitol Wednesday, Jan. 30 during the initial hearings for her two bills dealing with how missing persons cases are handled, especially those involving indigenous women. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) Supporters of legislation drafted to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women filled the Montana Capitol Wednesday, and 27 people lined up to support one bill, named after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013.

Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, is sponsoring House Bill 21, referred to as “Hanna’s Act,” which would give the Montana Department of Justice $100,000 of state money every year to hire a missing persons specialist. The new employee would also train law enforcement agencies across the state on best practices for missing persons cases.  

Peppers says the failure to find missing people is a statewide issue.

“It breaks my heart that these things happen in Indian Country. They also happen to Montana people,” Peppers said during the bill’s first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. “To know that these people will never be seen again is hard.”

Jackie Jones with the Montana County Attorneys Association says predators choose victims they think won’t be looked for, but  “Hanna’s Act” would close that gap and make sure no community is vulnerable.

“No matter who the child or who the person is, we are going to search with the same intensity, no matter what,” Jones said. “And that’s a message to perpetrators: that we’re watching.”

House Bill 54, which is also sponsored by Peppers, also was introduced Wednesday and addresses the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. The bill would force law enforcement agencies to file a missing persons report two hours after receiving notice of a missing minor, or eight hours if the missing person is an adult.

Malinda Harris Limberhand, mother of the Hanna Harris, said the police didn’t file a missing persons report after she told them her daughter was missing. She said she made her own search party with neighbors and friends.

“My community was there for me,” she said. “We did it without the help of police at all.”

There were no opponents to either bills and the committee didn’t immediately vote on the measures.

Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.