A bill named for a murdered Northern Cheyenne woman had its first hearing in the Montana Legislature Wednesday morning.
Hanna’s Act, House Bill 21, is one of several in the legislature that draws attention to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
"It breaks my heart that these things happen in Indian Country," says Rep. Rae Peppers, who introduced the bills. "They also happen to Montana people."
Peppers, a Democrat representing the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations, introduced Hanna’s Act in response to a number of women and girls who have gone missing in her district in recent years including Hanna Harris. The 21-year old Lame Deer woman went missing and was found murdered in 2013.
Hanna’s Act would authorize the Montana Department of Justice to hire a fulltime missing persons specialist to provide guidance to law enforcement and families in ongoing missing persons cases.
A companion bill also before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, House Bill 54, would require all law enforcement officers, regardless of jurisdiction, to file a missing persons report within two hours for persons under the age of 21 and within eight hours for everyone else.
Bryan Lockerby, administrator of criminal investigations at Montana’s Department of Justice, told the committee he’s seen cases where agencies have refused to take a report, feeling that it was outside their jurisdiction.
"This is about closing loopholes," said Lockerby. "This is about closing gaps and identifying them in the system and trying to get them shut down."
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council member Shelly Fyant noted that the bills have the support of both Democrats and Republicans.
"Missing and murdered women and children is not a red issue or a blue issue," Fyant said. "It's a bipartisan issue."
Some of the most emotional testimony at Wednesday's hearing came from Paula Castro-Stops, the mother of Henny Scott, the 14-year-old high school freshman whose body was found just a few weeks ago outside Lame Deer.
Castro-Stops described going to multiple Tribal offices on the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations trying to file a missing persons report after her daughter disappeared.
"And the person who took my report just put it on somebody’s desk that was out for vacation."
Castro-Stops said it took three weeks for a search party to finally come together and only three hours to find her daughter’s body after that.
"If these limitations are put in place I believe my daughter would have been found alive."
In addition to staff from the Montana DOJ, representatives from Montana tribes, Governor Bullock’s office, the ACLU, the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the state Attorney General’s office and the Montana County Attorneys Association joined families of victims at the hearing to urge legislators to pass both bills.
No opponents to either bill testified at Wednesday's hearing.