Missing Persons Data Project

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The missing persons issue, especially regarding indigenous peoples, has received increased attention over the past several years. High-profile cases, social media, and low-level statistical analysis have all contributed to the heightened awareness.

The Montana Department of Justice (MTDOJ) believes the data can be evaluated more thoroughly to help law enforcement agencies locate missing persons, inform policymakers to craft better solutions, and help communities prevent people from going missing in the first place.

The MTDOJ is uniquely positioned to access key lists and data sets, including the missing persons clearinghouse, records from the Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Child and Family Services Division (CFSD), autopsy reports from the state crime laboratory, and more.

For this project, the MTDOJ gathered and reviewed data from 2017-2019. The results were important and instructive for two key reasons.

First, the data confirms general beliefs or low-level statistical analysis on several fronts: indigenous persons are more than four times as likely to go missing as non-indigenous persons; and underreporting of these issues from tribal areas has been an issue for years (although it is showing signs of improvement).

Second, the data reveals new information that can be incredibly helpful in assisting law enforcement, policymakers, stakeholders, and Montana communities in addressing missing persons issues.

Key Observations

  1. Nearly 81% of individuals who went missing in 2017-2019 were under the age of 18.
  2. There is no significant difference between the number of females and males who go missing. Among the entire missing persons population, females are slightly more likely to go missing most years. However, it is not a significant difference even among indigenous populations. In one year (2019), the number of missing males outnumbered females.
  3. Most missing person reports represent people who have gone missing more than once. Roughly 60% of reports in Montana’s missing persons clearinghouse pertain to 28% of the unique individuals. For example, 28 indigenous juveniles went missing at least once in each of the three years this project reviewed, for a total of 195 entries. Additionally, 30 white juveniles also went missing at least once in each year of the study for a total of 183 entries. Nearly all of the repeats on the list are juveniles.
  4. The Phase I review of missing juvenile data indicates a strong correlation/relationship between childhood trauma and children ages 0 – 17 who were reported missing.
  5. Big Horn County had nearly double (per capita) the number of missing persons than the next highest county. Some counties with larger urban centers (Missoula, Gallatin) were inexplicably lower than other counties with larger populations (Yellowstone, Flathead, Lewis & Clark). There are regional missing-person hotspots that are not reservation communities, which could be linked to several factors.
  6. Most autopsied missing persons were adult males. The number of autopsies conducted on people who had appeared in the missing persons clearinghouse was skewed heavily toward adults: 83% adult (35 of 42 autopsies). Males comprised 69% of those missing persons who had autopsies.
  7. Nearly half of the deaths of those autopsied (19 of 42) were deemed accidental. Only 17% (7 of 42) were deemed homicides conclusively.
  8. Most people reported missing are found. An overwhelming number of people who appear in the missing persons clearinghouse are ultimately found or the case is otherwise closed. Out of the 3,277 individuals entered in the system in the three-year period of this review, 97.7% of the individuals were located/recovered.
  9. Tribal reporting has become more accurate. With several tribal communities, it appears more accurate reporting on missing persons began around 2019, which is why there is a spike in cases reported for that year compared to the previous two years.

Next Steps

The analysis in this report represents the most comprehensive missing persons inquiry by any state in the country. This is only Phase I of the MTDOJ’s deep-dive into the issue of missing persons, especially missing indigenous persons. Rather than hastily craft solutions based upon data that can be further developed and analyzed, the MTDOJ will use this information as the basis for determining the direction of Phase II.

Immediate next steps include sharing this information with tribal entities, the Montana Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force, and state and federal policymakers. Further steps during Phase II may include, but would not be limited to, looking deeper into active cases from the past three years, education records, youth court records, as well as looking at how substance abuse, crime, and poverty may contribute to the issue.

A Note on Terms

The terms and definitions used throughout this project mirror those used in state and federal law, search terms in databases, and other sources.

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