POPLAR, Mont. — When Maria Vega was a senior in high school in 2015, she found the body of one of her closest friends, who had died by suicide. A few days later, devastated by the loss, Vega tried to take her own life.
After the attempt failed, she was arrested and taken to juvenile detention in Poplar, a remote town on the Missouri River a short drive from the North Dakota oil fields. She was put in a cell and kept under observation for several days until a mental health specialist was available to see her. Her only interaction was with the woman who brought food to her cell.
“I remember asking her if I could have a hug and she told me, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do that,’” Vega recalled. “That was honestly one of the hardest things I ever went through in my life. I felt like I was being punished for being sad.”
Jailing people because of a mental health issue is illegal in Montana and every other state except New Hampshire. But Vega is a member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, a sovereign nation with its own laws. An 11-year-old tribal policy allows law enforcement to put members who threaten or attempt suicide in jail or juvenile detention to prevent another attempt.
Maria Vega, a member of Montana’s Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, was jailed in 2015 after a suicide attempt. Vega is now part of a group of tribal members, academics and policy experts proposing alternatives to the policy of jailing people who try to kill themselves. The policy was created in 2010 because of a lack of mental health resources on the reservation. (Sara Reardon/KHN)
Fort Peck’s tribal leaders say they approved the policy out of necessity because there were no mental health facilities equipped for short-term housing of people in mental crisis.
The COVID pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis. In 2020, the tribes filed a record 62 aggravated disorderly conduct charges, the criminal charge they created in 2010 to allow law enforcement to book people they deemed a risk to themselves or others.
Stacie FourStar, chief judge of the Fort Peck Tribal Court, said this year has been even worse: The tribe is filing two to four charges per week. The policy has swept up people — particularly adolescents — with no criminal records and no experience