Grant funds for community training in MMIW search and rescue to be discussed on House floor

By: - January 8, 2023 10:00 am

Activists march for missing and murdered Indigenous women at the Women’s March California 2019 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

Community members would be able to participate in search and rescue for missing friends and family as outlined in a bill headed to the House floor.

If passed, House Bill 18 would help address the missing persons problem, which disproportionately impacts Native Americans. Native Americans appear four times as often as non-Indigenous people on a state list of missing people, according to testimony in committee.

Requested by the State-Tribal Relations Committee, HB 18 would establish a grant program to train volunteers to help coordinate as part of a missing persons response team. The team would be trained to conduct searches while also protecting a scene for law enforcement to investigate.

The state would appropriate $61,000 to the program, which may also accept grants and donations.

A similar bill failed in 2021, but the House Judiciary Committee unanimously voted last week to send HB 18 to the House floor, along with a joint resolution to study missing youth, including Native American youth, in the interim. Both would then go on to the Senate

A Montana Department of Justice report released last year said 30 percent of all missing persons in 2021 were Native American, and 80 percent of all missing people were under the age of 18. The report, put together by the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, recommended legislation to address the problems.

During a hearing on HB 18, bill sponsor Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, explained the teams would be multi-agency and multi-jurisdictional and may include other community entities and volunteers. He said the program would train community members on how to communicate with responding agencies and how to conduct search and rescue to preserve the area, as the volunteers could be first responders in the critical first 24 hours.

A DOJ report looking at missing indigenous people from 2017 to 2019 found that of the more than 5,500 missing persons, 2,061 were found the same day and 2,258 were found within a week.

Special Services Bureau Chief at the Montana Department of Justice Dana Toole, who oversees the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force in her bureau, said that volunteers on the proposed response teams would be able to start searches and better coordinate with law enforcement agencies.

Toole said the Montana Missing Person Clearinghouse tracks every missing persons report in the state, usually from 150 to 200 people every day. She said the list is dynamic and can change by the hour and sometimes by the minute, and Native American Montanans appear four times as frequently compared to non-Indigenous persons.

However, Toole said there’s no data yet on how the program would impact recovery rates.

According to the bill, training expenses include, but are not limited to, the licensing costs of a training program, facilitator and conference location fees, and travel expenses for training staff and trainees.

To be eligible for funds, teams must coordinate and establish a memorandum of understanding between involved agencies and entities and develop operational procedures, along with a community action plan.

HB 18 was one of the recommendations from the Department of Justice’s Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, made up of stakeholders from the eight tribal nations in the state, DOJ and Highway Patrol, and the Attorney General’s office, whose goal, in part, was to improve jurisdictional barriers among federal, state, local, and tribal law enforcement and community agencies. The task force was authorized following the 2021 legislative session.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.