A Quiet Disaster: A Nation With Too Many Missing (and How To Fix It)

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When human disasters hit, they hardly go unnoticed. They are loud and elephantine — akin to the 30-feet tsunami waves that cloaked the south East Asian shorelines in 2005 or the crumbling towers and black smoke that filled the air in the 2001 terrorist attack in New York. Yet some human disasters are slow and inaudible, yet equally catastrophic.

According to National Institute of Justice, the U.S. is being hit with one such quiet disaster: an overwhelming number of missing persons. According to the National Institute of Justice, tens of thousands of people disappear under dubious circumstances on any day. Due the massive volume of missing person cases, officials in state and local law agencies are inundated.

In fact, more than 400,000 sets of human remains found are left in the evidence rooms. Only a small amount (about 15%) of these cases is entered into FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. Due to a lack of resources and time many officials are reluctant to file missing persons and unidentified human remains into their databases.

Still over the past decade, better managed forensic tools and improved accessibility are helping jurisdictions all over the United States solve uncanny homicides. We’ve provided a closer look for our curious readers into how these missing persons cases are managed.

 

A wealth of information — at your fingertips.

A major hurdle in solving missing person crime is that many of the nation’s 17000 law enforcement agencies are simply unaware of the resources available — literally at their fingertips. One tool is the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons or CODIS(mp), a searchable database created by the FBI over ten years ago. As indicated in its name, the database combines two types of DNA from missing persons, relatives and human remains.

One type of DNA is nuclear DNA, which is genetic material scientists have used for decades as a forensic tool. Nuclear DNA is what we inherit from both of our parents. Half of our nuclear DNA we inherit from our father; the other half from our mother. The other type of DNA is found inside a cell structure called the mitochondria. We inherit this mitochondrial DNA from our mother. In fact, everyone in the same maternal line shares the exact same mitochondrial DNA. Obtaining both types of DNA from human remains are powerful identification tools.

 

What’s in it for me? Or the incentive with a difference.

Another major incentive for state and local law enforcement officials is that DNA testing of human remains using the CODIS(mp) database can all be done for free. The Texas-based Center for Human Identification (CHI) scans nuclear and mitochondrial DNA testing on all types of samples, including skeletal remains and those from a missing persons’ family. CHI forensic anthropology experts also run tests to figure out the cause of death – also at no cost.

 

DIY collecting DNA: sample collection kits.

Having free, searchable databases for DNA scans is helpful, but how do you make it easier for families and relatives hit by such tragedy to send in DNA samples? CHI sends DNA sample collection kits at no cost to any police department, medical examiner or coroner in the United States. In fact, since July 2006, more than 4000 sample kits have been sent out to families.

Collecting DNA at home is straightforward. A missing person’s relative can run a swab along the inside of their cheek. They can also send in a personal item owned by the missing person for DNA testing, like hair from a hairbrush or saliva from a toothbrush. When officials receive the family DNA sample collection kits, they then send it to the CHI lab for analysis and upload the results into the CODIS(mp) database.

 

How much do you really know about it?

Other ways to help solve missing person cases is simply better training of law enforcement officials and encouraging them to turn in DNA samples. For instance, many labs are reluctant to run DNA analysis on samples that are old and degraded. But changes in forensic tools and technologies has come a long way and can often still recover information from degraded DNA. Also, through proposed legislation, officials can be encouraged to take DNA samples within 30 days of finding the bodily remain. Together, better resources and improved accessibility can make this inaudible catasophre of missing persons come slowly, but surely, to a halt.

 

Your turn: Do you have any personal experience investigating a missing persons case? What are the limitations and difficulties in pursuing such a matter? Let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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