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Hanna’s Act passes Montana Legislature, intensifying search for missing indigenous women

Hanna Harris and her son, Nelleek, shortly before her death near Lame Deer in 2013. (Family photo)

(UM Legislative News Service) Inspired by the growing number of missing and murdered indigenous women in Montana, a bill that would create a special position in the Department of Justice to investigate all missing persons cases in the state passed its final vote in the 2019 Legislature 96-1 Tuesday.

House Bill 21 is named “Hanna’s Act” after Hanna Harris, who was found murdered on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in 2013.

The legislation would spend $100,000 a year on the position. Rep. Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer, the bill’s sponsor, said it wouldn’t have passed without help from both sides of the aisle.

“It was so bipartisan in this House that it overwhelms me right now. And they have told me this themselves that they understood human trafficking is a serious issue for all people in Montana,” Peppers said.

The bill’s co-sponsor, Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said after the rough journey of the bill losing funding, being tabled and missing deadlines, the final vote was almost anti-climactic.

“It was such a hard journey. So today, taking the final vote, it’s like ‘we’re done.’ It’s a sigh of relief,” Stewart Peregoy said.

“Hanna’s Act” still needs to be signed by the governor before it becomes law, and is the last in a package of bills addressing missing and murdered people in the state to pass the Legislature.

Other bills included in the package were HB 20, which lets law enforcement officers file missing persons reports for children who have been taken by their parents. Also included is HB 54, a bill that would allow any law enforcement official in the state to file a missing persons report, and SB 40, which creates a photograph directory through the state Office of Public Instruction used for only for locating missing children.

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.