BISMARCK — More than two years after the North Dakota Legislature unanimously approved the creation of a state-managed missing persons database, lawmakers put the funding in place to make it a reality.
During their special session earlier this month, lawmakers earmarked $300,000 out of the state’s $1 billion in federal coronavirus aid funding for the creation of a centralized missing persons database, to be managed by the Attorney General’s office, closing the loop on work started during the 2019 session.
Once launched, the database will fill a longstanding gap for North Dakota agencies and law enforcement, and backers are hopeful that it will provide an especially useful resource for monitoring the state's problem of missing Indigenous people.
Fargo Democrat Rep. Ruth Buffalo, who brought the 2019 bill to launch the database, said she had originally conceived of the idea as a way to track missing and murdered Indigenous women, a national epidemic that has developed broader public awareness in recent years, even as data on the phenomenon remains thin.
“It was surprising to find that our state doesn’t have a database — period — that tracks missing people,” said Buffalo, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and the only Native American representative in North Dakota’s House chamber. The version of the bill that eventually passed in 2019 expanded the program to include all missing people, though Buffalo said that input from the state's tribal nation's will be crucial to the program's implementation.
Right now, a unified system for reporting and tracking missing persons is “basically nonexistent in North Dakota,” said Highway Patrol Sgt. Jenna Clawson Huibregtse, the cultural liaison officer for the state police who worked closely with Buffalo and the Attorney General’s office on plans for the database.
Clawson Huibregtse said that North Dakota law enforcement relies on a patchwork of different reporting systems when it comes to missing people, which can be unreliable and difficult to access for boots-on-the-ground officers. Many local law enforcement entities also use different systems, meaning that information isn't shared or updated across jurisdictions.
And the limited resources currently available to law enforcement and North Dakota agencies are far from comprehensive, Clawson Huibregtse said. One database, the federally-administered National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, allows submissions from anyone and has no formal process for verifying or updating information.
At the same time, Clawson Huibreigtse said that missing people in North Dakota often go unreported for a host of reasons ranging from a lack of education on the issue to distrust of law enforcement.
"If you start asking about people in the community who has gone missing, you're gonna hear way more names of people" than are listed in the federal database, she said.
Clawson Huibregtse also noted that a massive age range of people between 18 and 64, which encompasses the most common as well as the least reported disappearances, do not fit the criteria for the state’s “Amber” or “silver” alerts.
Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem supported funding the database this special session and requested that lawmakers approve the full $300,000 requested to allow for creation of an adequate program. The 2019 bill called for $75,000, but the proposal passed into law without any funding approved to implement it.
Buffalo said that while individual families and tribal communities know the stories of the people who have never returned, the new database will be important for quantifying the magnitude of the problem across the state, and for developing policy changes to help address it.
"Without data, you can't prove your point," she said.
If you would like to report a missing person in your area, contact your local police department, tribal police, sheriff's office or the state radio’s non-emergency line at (701) 328-9921. For more information on the state’s forthcoming missing persons database, call the Attorney General’s Office at (701) 328-2210.