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The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) contains thousands of listings that read like the above. They represent a small fraction of the unidentified persons, or cases of unidentified human remains, throughout the U.S. The database houses hundreds of pages with stark details of the unidentified dead, many of which are connected to violent crime. Missing and nameless, often for decades at a time.
- Male infant, Pennsylvania, unidentified for more than 40 years
- Adult woman, Tennessee, unidentified for more than 20 years
- Adult woman, Virginia, unidentified for more than 25 years
- Adult male, Alaska, unidentified for more than 30 years
The magnitude of the missing and unidentified came to light in 2007, as the National Institute of Justice published the report, “Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains: The Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster.” The report explored the impact of missing persons and unidentified human remains cases on both state and local law enforcement, as well as medical examiners and forensics professionals.
Astonishing statistics were revealed. “More than 40,000 sets of human remains that cannot be identified through conventional means are held in the evidence rooms of medical examiners throughout the country,” the report said.
The report also revealed gaps in the system – including lack of resources to handle the volume of cases at the local level, the practice of burial of remains before collecting DNA samples, and a lack of knowledge and communication regarding state and federal databases with case information.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) began working to create solutions on two different levels. One solution was coordinating and connecting the various databases of information on the missing and unidentified, including the launch of a database of Unidentified Persons, which eventually became the NamUs system, a database with access provided free to anyone from medical examiners, families who have a missing loved one, law enforcement agencies, or the general public.
The other solution was using and coordinating DNA technology to identify the missing and unidentified. NIJ works with officials nationally including medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement, and other professionals to collect and analyze DNA samples and other ways of identification to gather as much data as possible to help identify the missing and return them to their families.
In the last few years, new and more advanced DNA technologies have solved more of the backlog of cases weighing down not only families but law enforcement. The most advanced and accurate methods provide the ability to extract DNA from degraded or contaminated remains.
As a result of advanced DNA methods and techniques to work with trace amounts of DNA, including those developed at Othram, Inc., a number of decades-old missing persons cases have been solved. Some of these cases have identified missing teens and victims of homicide, bringing closure and healing to communities and families alike.
But for every cold case that is solved, dozens more remain unsolved, sometimes for decades. Despite the strides that have been made from more comprehensive databases and even advanced DNA and genetic testing technology, the number of unidentified persons continues to rise each year, by an average of 1000 unsolved cases. As a result, the estimate of 40,000 unidentified persons remains steady from year to year.
The Current Statistics of the Unidentified
NamUs publishes an update of their statistics each month. This number of missing and unidentified rises every month.
Annually there are:
- Estimated 40,000 unidentified decedents recovered throughout the U.S. at any given time
- Additional 1000 unidentified bodies added each year
- Only 1% of cases have been solved using only CODIS
Most current data from the NamUs database - January 2022
- Over 13,000 active unidentified decedent cases
- 13,916 Unidentified from 54 States and Territories (Jan 2022)
- 95% of the current published cases in NamUs 2.0 involving persons missing one year or more.
Agencies like the National Institute of Justice acknowledge their responsibility to use technology, science, funding, and resources to help families by finding their unidentified loved ones. By partnering with forensic professionals and leading DNA scientists, law enforcement professionals nationwide can begin pushing the needle forward in the effort to close more cold cases and bring more healing to families and communities.
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