Montana Editorial Roundup
Missoulian, Jan. 23, on taking action to help find Montana’s missing children:
It took the Federal Bureau of Investigation nearly two weeks to request an official missing persons alert after Henny Scott went missing from her home on the North Cheyenne Indian Reservation last December. Two days after that alert went out, the 14-year-old’s body was found by a search party scouring an area west of Lame Deer.
Scott’s family and many others in her community are left questioning why it took so long for the alert to be issued. The Bureau of Indian Affairs was notified of her disappearance on Dec. 13, 2018 — but the FBI didn’t take action until Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. That is an unconscionable delay when a child is missing and every passing hour may mean the difference between finding her safe — or never finding her at all.
Montana’s Legislature is acting on legislation to change the way missing children are reported in order to allow any law enforcement officer in the state to file a missing child report immediately, regardless of custodial circumstances or agency jurisdiction. This change would mean that law enforcement on Montana’s Indian reservations will be able to report missing children themselves, without first having to go through state or federal agencies.
This week that legislation, House Bill 20, introduced by Lame Deer Democrat Rep. Rae Peppers at the request of the State-Tribal Relations Committee, was passed by the House with no opposition.
The simple, one-page bill would amend Section 44-2-504 of the Montana Code Annotated to:
- Require law enforcement — whether municipal, county, state or tribal — to immediately report missing child information to Montana’s missing children information program.
- Allow any parent, guardian, or legal custodian to submit a missing child report for any child whose whereabouts is unknown, regardless of the circumstances, and even if the child is believed to be with the non-custodial parent.
- Direct law enforcement authorities to collect “detailed biographical and contact information for all involved parties” when taking a report concerning likely custodial interference.
The goal is to make it more efficient to file missing child reports in Montana so that more people can be on the alert and missing children can be found more quickly. The Montana Senate should give its approval to HB 20 without undue delay and, of course, Gov. Steve Bullock should sign this compelling legislation.
House Bill 21, another bill from Peppers, deserves similar attention — and approval. It is currently awaiting its first hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill is titled “Hanna’s Act” after Hanna Harris, whose body was found on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013. It would allow the Montana Department to Justice to lend its staff and resources to help with all missing person cases, and assign a missing persons specialist to handle such cases.
While making important strides at the state level, Montanans must also continue to pressure federal authorities to do better — to treat reports of missing Native Americans with the seriousness and urgency they deserve, but have long been denied.
Native American women experience violence at rates far disproportional to their population. At last count, 30 percent of the missing women in Montana were Native Americans, according to the Montana Department of Justice. This despite the fact that they make up just slightly more than 3 percent of the state’s population.
This month, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester used his seat on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to demand that the BIA and FBI explain the lapse in reporting Henny Scott as missing, saying in a letter to the two agencies’ directors that “Law enforcement owes a much higher standard to protecting citizens in Indian Country.”
“There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the circumstances of Henny’s death, but it has become clear that the initial law enforcement response was unacceptable,” Tester wrote. “I am troubled by the trend of inadequate responses to these types of situations. We cannot hope to solve the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women epidemic if we do not address how law enforcement initially responds in these cases.”
Last weekend, the Native American Law Students Association sponsored a vigil in Missoula to draw attention to the widespread issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. With support from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and other groups, the Native American-led event drew an estimated 500 individuals to the University of Montana campus to learn how to move from awareness to action.
Part of this action includes calling on Montana’s leaders to push for more resources devoted to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, as well as legislation that closes the gaps in law enforcement procedure.
Let your state legislators know you support legislation to improve Montana’s ability to find missing children. And let your congressional delegates know you support legislation to do the same at the federal level.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 20, on MSU’s return to the Carnegie Institute’s top research classification:
It was a little like winning the lottery when news broke that Montana State University had regained its status with the Carnegie Institute as an institution with “very high research activity.” And it wasn’t just MSU faculty and administrators that hit the jackpot. All of Montana gains as MSU again becomes a big draw for high-caliber faculty, grad students and research grants.
MSU enjoyed this highest of Carnegie research classification from 2006 to 2015 but then slipped into the second highest classification of “higher research activity.” The return to the top tier is the result of a concerted effort on the part of MSU faculty and administrators to renew emphasis on research and graduate degrees. But there was never any guarantee of success.
Schools clamor for this status because it raises the institutions’ profile in competition for grant money and the faculty who are good at winning those grants. The list includes schools like Harvard and MIT. The return to the top tier is certainly a win for MSU President Waded Cruzado, Vice President for Research and Economic Development Renee Reijo Pera and research faculty. But the Montana economy also wins.
MSU consistently spends north of $125 million a year on research funded by outside grants and research contracts. There aren’t many Montana businesses who can claim $125 million in spending annually. Taken by itself, that’s a significant shot in the economic arm for the state. That’s a lot of money spent on salaries for research faculty who buy homes, cars, appliances and other goods and services locally. And it’s money spent on building maintenance and repairs and office supplies needed to conduct the research.
In the most recent Carnegie listing, MSU was also one of only two very high research universities also classified as “very high undergraduate” schools. That reflects MSU’s longtime emphasis on research at all levels — an emphasis that gives undergraduate students a leg up on competition to get into desirable graduate programs. And it should answer some of the critics who have argued MSU is sacrificing quality in undergraduate education in its pursuit of research recognition.
Hands down MSU’s return to the top Carnegie research classification is great news — for MSU and all of Montana.
Billings Gazette, Jan. 20, on not letting child molesters escape justice in Montana:
The Billings Gazette frequently reports on sex offenses against children. A shocking number of these crimes occurred years ago, often many years ago. Most old offenses were brought to public attention in civil lawsuits because the statute of limitations for criminal prosecution has expired. Why the delay in reporting?
It’s difficult for victims to come forward to report sex offenses, and nearly impossible when the perpetrator is an authority figure and the victim is a frightened, traumatized child.
Montana House Bill 109 would remove the statute of limitations for prosecution of felony and misdemeanor sex offenses against children.
Present law requires prosecution of felony child sexual assaults to commence within 20 years after the victim turns 18. Present law requires prosecution of misdemeanor child sex offenses to start within five years of the victim turning 18.
That limitation has prevented the state from filing charges against James Jensen, the former Miles City high school trainer now accused of molesting dozens of young boys two decades or longer ago.
The time limit has thwarted prosecution of a 1987 attack on an 8-year-old Billings girl who was raped in her home by an intruder identified by a DNA match only a few years ago.
If enacted as law, HB109 would be effective immediately. There would no longer be a statute of limitations on sex crimes against Montana children. The new law would also remove the statute of limitations on child molesting that occurred before the law was enacted and before the old statute of limitations has expired. Child molesters would no longer be able to get away with their heinous crimes because prosecution was delayed.
One goal of the civil lawsuit against Jensen is to call attention to the present limit so the criminal law will be changed, said Miles City attorney Dan Rice, who represents 31 men victimized as children. Rice said his clients want their children and other children “protected from monsters who prey on children.”
Thirty-seven states have no statute of limitations on prosecuting child sexual abuse, Rice said. Montana isn’t one of them - a fact that Jensen apparently knew because he started contacting some of his victims on social media soon after the 20-year limit had expire.
Jensen’s daughter, who has been estranged from him for many years, testified in support of HB109, saying: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence he waited until right at the statute point to contact victims just to further torment them.”
“The bill will make sure the children see justice no matter how old they are,” sponsor Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, told the committee. Dunwell said she has heard from constituents that those sexually abused as children were not able to report abuse as children because they were afraid of their abuser or ashamed of what happened to them.
There were no opponents to HB109 at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday. The bill drew bipartisan support. This isn’t the first time that the Legislature had been asked to lift the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. The 2019 session must be the time to finally get this law right for children.
We call on members of the House and Senate and Gov. Steve Bullock to approve this simple, straightforward protection for Montana’s children. Make HB109 the law of Montana.