Last week, relatives of 16 missing people gave the state a sample of their saliva, hoping it would help New York in its effort to locate their loved ones, even if they’ve turned up dead somewhere.
New York is part of the growing national effort to match genetic material with the DNA of thousands of unidentified dead across the country.
Barbara Sullivan, whose son disappeared nearly two years ago at age 19, was among those donating DNA at the state Cultural Education Center in Albany. Searches for her son, Brian, in the wooded area near where his car was left in suburban Rochester, failed to find him. She began to cry when she recalled giving her DNA.
“It was very hard,” Sullivan said. “If for some reason that he’s not [alive] somewhere and needs to be identified this could help our family bring an end to it.”
Using DNA from close relatives, labs can establish a genetic profile, which can be matched against DNA profiles of those found dead without any identification.
New York’s Department of Criminal Justice Services is sending its DNA samples from relatives of the missing, all taken from simple mouth swabs, to a lab in Texas. There they will be processed, generally in four to six months, and uploaded into the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, according to the lab.
Nationally, there are 40,000 or more unidentified dead, experts say, although DNA records on them are woefully incomplete but growing. Meanwhile, about 100,000 people are officially missing in the U.S., according to the FBI, though advocates say that reporting is also incomplete and the total is far higher.
At least five states — Texas, California, Florida, New Jersey and Oregon — now require medical examiners and coroners to take DNA records of their unidentified dead, said George Adams, program director for the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth. Similar legislation is pending in New York.
Most of the unidentified dead are homicide victims, said Adams, whose lab is one of many around the country doing DNA analysis.
“Nothing else can happen to them,” he said. “But the family is continuously victimized. The family goes up and down, up and down, on a roller coaster with every word, every hint that takes place. We’re trying to take all that pain away from the family.”
Adams said his center’s DNA profiles have identified the dead in at least 39 random hits since 2005, as well as 111 involving leads from detective agencies. They used family DNA or other samples, such as the missing person’s toothbrush or blood, to make the matches.
New York plans to provide DNA collections requested by relatives of the state’s other missing, who officially numbered 3,472 in early April, said John Caher, spokesman for the Department of Criminal Justice Services. Those interested in having samples taken should call the Office of Forensic Services at 518-457-1901, Caher said.
“This is what we’ve been working toward and hoping for — that that kind of service could be available for families,” said Doug Lyall, whose daughter, then 19, a state university student, disappeared from Albany on March 2, 1998. He and his wife, Mary, marked Suzanne’s 31st birthday last week, assuming she’s still alive somewhere.
Their grief led them to found the nonprofit Center for Hope, which advocates for families of the missing, and asked New York to fill the information gap on family DNA. New York State Police have taken family DNA samples in some cases, Sgt. Kern Swoboda said.
“When you’re in that situation as a parent, having a missing loved one, you’re always wanting to know and not wanting to know at the same time. There’s a lot of ambivalence there,” Doug Lyall said. “As time moves on, the months and the years go by, you really want to, you want answers. You want at least the answer anyway so you don’t have to go on looking for your loved one and not know whether they’re alive or deceased.”
In 2004, medical examiners and coroners reported 13,486 unidentified deceased on record nationally. The Bureau of Justice Statistics noted that only half of those offices had a policy for retaining records on the unknown dead such as DNA, dental records or X-rays.
“It is already a big problem. It compounds every year,” said Christine Vivian, spokeswoman for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, which manages a publicly accessible national database for the National Institute of Justice.
The eventual national goal is two massive DNA data collections, one for the missing and one for the dead, to facilitate identifications, Vivian said. “It’s a matter of critical mass.”