Gone Missing

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More than 100,000 people disappear every year in the U.S. But there are few national tools to help anxious relatives locate their loved ones.

Casey King, 30, was juggling a newborn baby and two older children when her husband Jody went missing last April. She had no doubt something was wrong. Jody, 28, adored his children–and it was hard to believe he would disappear voluntarily a few weeks after the birth of their third daughter.

But convincing law enforcement, public officials, and others was a different matter.

With help from local law enforcement,Casey filed a report that was sent to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) within the first 24 hours of her husband's disappearance. Local media covered the story asking for community help to locate Jody, said King, but the response she received from local authorities, besides the initial report, bordered on indifference. He was an adult, they said; sometimes people disappear.

That was small comfort. “Until it happens to you, you don't realize what a problem missing persons are in this country,” said King, who lives outside of Ticonderoga, NY.

Over 100,000 new missing person cases involving adults are filed annually, according to the NCIC. And close to 700,000 children under the age of 18 are reported missing every year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).

The good news is that about 96 percent of the missing kids will be found healthy, says Jerry Nance, case manager for the NCMEC . About two percent will be found alive—but not in good shape, most likely suffering abuse during their disappearance. Around one percent will be found deceased, and one percent are never heard of again. “While the numbers sound low, you can tally quite a load,” he observed.

Locating missing adults is a tougher challenge. Law enforcement authorities must walk a delicate line between respecting privacy–some missing people may not want to be “found”–and helping families locate an individual. As a result, unless there is clear evidence that the missing adult is at risk, many families are left on their own to locate their loved ones. In the case of missing adults deemed to be at risk due to diminished mental capacity, physical disability, or suspicion of foul play, under the Federal law Kristen's Act, relatives can use the services of the National Center for Missing Adults, a national data clearinghouse. But most of those searching for missing friends are faced with putting together fragmented information they can find from law enforcement authorities, medical examiners and coroners.

A National Problem

Advocates and law enforcement authorities contacted by The Crime Report agreed that the issue is a national problem, because of the scant resources and poor coordination available to help families locate the missing. And most experts in the field believe that the country could do better.

While local, state and federal law enforcement professionals are mandated by the 1990 National Child Search Assistance Act to file with the NCIC a missing-person's report for children, there is no such requirement for adults. Yet sharing full details about missing adults could help solve many open cases, especially if the profiles match with unidentified human remains. About 4,400 human remains are found annually with 1,000 remaining unclaimed after a year, according to a 2007 Office of Justice Programs report, leaving approximately 40,000 human remains still in medical examiner or coroner offices.

But there are glimmers of hope. In 2007, the government created an online database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), in an effort to match missing people with unidentified remains. Since July 2009, NamUs has had the ability to cross-match identifiers entered into the system. Into one database, for example, medical examiners and coroners enter details on discovered remains. Into another database law enforcement and families put together a profile of the missing person; a cross tattoo, scars on their toes, a birthmark on an elbow. Any match possibilities are presented to law enforcement for further investigation. Since January 2009 the missing persons side of the system has received 185,686 visits.

In October 2009, Rep. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, tabled the Help Find the Missing Act. The proposed bill would direct the Attorney General to maintain a national database, and require the NCIC to share its information on missing persons with law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners. This month the bill was introduced to the Senate.

In the first nightmarish days after her husband's disappearance, King holed up in a hotel room and entered as many details as she could remember about him into the NamUs database. The more details entered, the better chance there will be of finding a match between a missing person and unidentified remains, experts say.

NamUs rates the entries with stars. Five stars denotes a complete profile of the missing person with a picture or rendering, and one star usually provides just the name or location. Since the cross-match system has been put into place in 2009, 13 positive matches have occurred, says Billy Young, program coordinator for NamUs. In the missing persons field this is a high rate for solving cases, he adds.

Successful cases include Sonia Lente who was missing for six years before a citizen sleuth identified remarkable similarities between her case and unidentified remains in New Mexico. Another unbelievable match was of Paula Beverly Davis, who went missing from Kansas City, Missouri in the summer of 1987. Unbeknownst to her family her body was found in Ohio only fourteen hours later, but it was only until December 11, 2009 that her sister was able to make a positive match after entering Paula's information into NamUs.

One of the cases turned out to be Jody King. Following a car accident in neighboring Connecticut, a disoriented Jody walked away from the scene. Apparently, he crawled into a drainage ditch where he died from his injuries. There was no identification found on his body, and Jody's remains languished in a local morgue, listed as unidentified. Eight weeks after his disappearance, NamUs was able to make a match the dental records between the human remains in Connecticut and the missing adult on New York.

“I feel blessed that my ordeal ended at eight weeks,” his widow told The Crime Report.

But for thousands of Americans with missing relatives, hopes of similar closure are nowhere in sight. Young and other experts say there is still a long way to go before those hopes can be satisfied. The challenge, they say, is to persuade more people, particularly law enforcement personnel, to use the systems that currently exist. Work is already underway to spread that knowledge and since January 2009 has been represented at 30 conferences nationwide in addition to through police training, seminars and the news media.

But still more is needed. Mike Murphy, Coroner of Clark County, Nevada, believes the system is only as good as the information being put into it. Murphy, who was instrumental in organizing the nation's medical examiner and coroner community behind the NamUs database, says officials around the country need to share the information they already have. “The goal is to solve the case quickly, and to do that we need to get the case details out on a national level,” says. “So we can return loved ones to loved ones.”

Casey King agrees. Her own travail brought her into contact with “people who still have no idea what happened to their loved ones five to ten years later,” she says. “When you are missing someone, everyone else goes on and you are still left where you were the day they disappeared. Except now, you are trying to get through life with an unimaginable burden.”

Cara Tabachnick is News Editor of The Crime Report. Please contact her at cara@thecrimereport.org

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