“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The question comes from families in limbo for days, months, and years waiting for the answer to what has become of their missing loved ones. The answer to their question may be lie in the more than 40,000 unidentified human bodies or remains lying in county morgues, medical examiner offices, or buried in potter’s field cemeteries. The link between the missing and the unidentified dead is slowly being established, and with that link many searches will end.
The Growing Numbers of the Unidentified Dead
The Bureau of Justice Statistics, an agency operating under the purview of the Department of Justice, estimated that in 2007 medical examiners and coroners were annually assigned 4,400 cases of unidentified dead, of which 1,000 would remain unidentified after one year. Of the 1,000 unidentified that remain after one year, how many will be buried or cremated without ever being identified?
Centralized Reporting System
Law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners all agree on the need of a national centralized database depositary for DNA, photos, medical and dental records, clothing, jewelry, and other personal items found with the deceased.
Current Law Enforcement Data Information Systems
The National Criminal Information Center is the FBI database where DNA is stored that has been taken from unidentified bodies. The DNA is then compared to DNA samples that families of missing persons have supplied. The NCIC database is an important identification tool, but it does have its drawbacks.
One area where the NCIC database can be improved is to require all medical examiners and coroners to enter unidentified dead and missing persons information into the NCIC database, which they are currently not required to do.
Without a national mandatory policy requiring each state to enter unidentified dead and missing persons information into a central database, the unidentified dead person and missing person match ratio will continue to be low.
National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS)
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System is a dual database system instituted by the Department of Justice where the unidentified dead and missing persons physical information is entered. The NamUs database contains pictures, dental and medical records, and fingerprints of unidentified dead and missing persons. Law enforcement and medical examiner personnel update the two separate databases as information becomes available. The next step in the continual information process is having both sites, linked for public searches.
Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)
Combined DNA Index System is software that was created to make cross comparison of DNA profiles. The premise behind the design is that many criminals are repeat offenders and for this reason their DNA information will likely already be on file for comparison with new crime scene evidence.
The Doe Network Organization
The Doe Network is made up of volunteers in every state who scour the Internet to match the missing with the unidentified dead. The job of the volunteers can be made more or less difficult depending on the entry of correct medical, dental and police reports, and pictures into the right databases. The Doe volunteers begin where the time, staff, and money for law enforcement and medical examiners ends.
Missing Persons and Unidentified Dead Pending Legislation
On March 31, 2011, Congressmen Chris Murphy and Ted Poe, introduced “Billy’s Law” (Help Find the Missing Act). The bill is named for the son of Janice Smolinski, Billy Smolinski, who went missing in 2004. The bill seeks to do the following:
Provide funding for the only federal database for the missing person and unidentified dead.
Eliminate loopholes in current missing persons and unidentified dead database systems.
Provide reporting laws for law enforcement authorities and medical examiners for the missing and unidentified dead. The major goal here is to establish a link between the FBI’s NCIC and NamUs databases.
To create a grant incentive programs for law enforcement agencies, medical examiners, and coroners, to provide funding for personnel training, increase reporting proficiency of the missing and unidentified dead, and to secure matching funds.
It’s hard to explain to families across the country who have searched for years for a missing loved one, when the object of their search laid reposed in the county morgue.
If you believe It is imperative that “Billy’s Law” (Help Find the Missing Act) is passed, which will link missing persons and unidentified dead databases, provide funding for law enforcement and medical examiners, and establish uniform reporting guidelines, then act and contact your Congressperson.