A search for a loved one gone missing may begin on foot with dozens of people combing for physical clues, but in the tragic days, months or years that follow, the search can actively continue online via a National Missing and Unidentified Persons System unveiled Sunday.
As part of the seventh annual New York State Missing Persons Day held at the New York State Museum, experts from the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas gave the first presentation on the database system, due to be fully operational by 2009.
Called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS), and run by the National Institute of Justice, the system acts as a clearinghouse for records of unidentified remains and missing persons reports, constantly sifting through data, searching for matches. “This will revolutionize how justice agencies investigate cases,” said George Adams, missing persons coordinator for the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas, who was Sunday’s keynote speaker.
By next year, the databases will be readily available to families, law enforcement officials, medical examiners, coroners, victim advocates and the general public.
“We want as many people inside and outside the justice system searching,” Adams said. “We want more eyes on these cases.”
With dental records long considered the gold standard for identification, Adams said there’s an enormous capacity for human error as those records are traced.
“There was a woman not identified for 21 years because the dentist accidentally misfiled the right jaw x-rays with the left,” said Adams. “These things happen; what we need is a more methodical way to centralize any identifying information we have.”
The National Institute of Justice program will also allow another extraordinary scientific breakthrough — DNA sampling — to be harnessed as an additional key component in identification. A five-second swab test inside the mouth of a family member could help match them with any remains located by authorities. Called Family Reference Samples, the Justice Institute hopes to disseminate collection kits free of charge to families. Once collected, the unique family genetic map is entered into the database as a further search tool. While some states allow authorities to automatically seek dental records for those missing more than 30 days, there aren’t any who send out a notice requiring DNA sampling. Adams said there are currently 614 cases of unidentified remains across the United States, cases that could be solved by a DNA match.
People can log in now to www.namus.gov to take a look at the system, pull up records from decedents still not identified, and add a profile of their missing loved one. Prompts allow people to enter even the smallest details that could prove vital, including tattoo designs, as well as scars or freckles.
Following the link of a missing person to their remains is also crucial to tracing the crime, and ultimately, working to locate the criminal, authorities say.
“When we go back and take a look at what we find, many are homicides, and most are part of multiple crimes,” Adams said. “We want that perpetrator; we want to find that person before he harms anyone, before he takes any more victims, because all the families involved are victims.”
Although harnessing the latest high technology, the system was borne from the human compassion that moves people beyond family and friends of the missing to help in any way they can.
“What you hear from authorities, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing more we can do,’ is no longer valid in the United States,” Adams said. “We are your family. I’m part of you, and you’re part of me.”
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