Justice Department working with tribes on missing persons

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In this image from video, Ernie Weyand, the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Person coordinator for the Justice Department in Montana, speaks at virtual news conference Thursday, April 1, 2021, announcing a development in the initiative. The Justice Department has finalized its first plan to help address the problem of missing and murdered Native people on one of the largest reservations in Montana. (Department of Justice via AP)

HELENA, Mont.Jermain Charlo vanished in June 2018. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member hasn’t been seen since.

Valenda Morigeau, Charlo’s aunt, reported her missing to the Missoula Police Department in the days after her disappearance. But Morigeau said the detective initially assigned to the case failed to take the report seriously and was slow to act, a pattern she said is common when Native Americans report missing loved ones.

“You would think that there would be more urgency to go find the person that is missing,” Morigeau said. “Here we are, three years later, because they assumed she was avoiding responsibilities.”

Charlo’s case brought the problem of missing and murdered Indigenous women to the fore in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes. Now, almost three years after her disappearance, the tribes on Thursday became the first in the nation to complete a community response plan — a Justice Department initiative aimed at creating collaboration between law enforcement agencies, including tribal police, county police and federal authorities, when Native Americans go missing on tribal land.

Still, there are major holes. Among the most glaring: There is no plan for when a tribal citizen goes missing off a reservation or outside tribal lands, as Charlo did.

In 2018, an Associated Press investigation found that 633 Indigenous women made up 0.7% of open missing persons cases despite being 0.4% of the U.S. population.

The situation is especially alarming in states such as Montana, which have large Native American populations. Native Americans make up less than 7% of Montana’s population but account for 25% of reported missing person cases.

It is not a federal crime for an adult to go missing, and the FBI generally would only step in if there was clear evidence that a crime has been committed that led to a disappearance. The federal government could lend its resources to local law enforcement officials to help in the search.