Our best missing persons database could disappear in a few months
Officials point fingers over the fate of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a crucial resource in solving dead-end forensics cases.
Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications. This story originally featured on Undark.
Hundreds of thousands of people go missing each year in the US. And, for more than a decade, law enforcement officers, medical examiners, volunteer sleuths, and families have been able to use the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, to seek answers.
Established in 2007, NamUs offers public databases and free forensic services. Since its inception, according to the program’s website, it has helped resolve more than 2,700 missing persons cases and identify more than 2,000 bodies. Tens of thousands of open cases remain in the system.
“I can’t imagine working without it,” said Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the office of the medical examiner in Pima County, Arizona.
So Anderson and others were caught off guard this month when the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification abruptly announced that it was dropping the program. UNTCHI has managed NamUs since 2011 through a cooperative agreement with the National Institute of Justice, part of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“UNTCHI will no longer be able to support NamUs stakeholders with any analytical or case support; victim services; system development; or new forensic services,” the center said in a statement, posted in the first week of December. The sudden move, it explained, was “due to funding limitations and significant program modifications directed by the National Institute of Justice.”
The changes were set to begin on January 1. Then, just days after the statement published, UNT reached an agreement with NIJ to continue hosting the program through at least September 2021. But the sudden turmoil has alarmed many advocates in the missing persons community, and it has set off finger pointing between UNT and NIJ. Meanwhile, according to a statement from NIJ, the program could be facing staffing and service cuts, at least in the short-term—and it remains unclear what exactly the longer-term future of NamUs may be.
The launch of the NamUs program in 2007 followed calls for a centralized repository for missing persons cases that would be open to the public. Prior to the launch, experts say, there was no public, online government database to collect critical information in one place, and to connect jurisdictions that had found a body with both law enforcement and members of the public who might be looking for someone. (Some existing volunteer-run efforts, such as the Doe Network, attempted to provide these services.)
At the time, according to a 2007 report published in the National Institute of Justice Journal, the scale of that loss was enormous. “On any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States,” the report said, adding that each year “tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances.”
On top of that, the report noted, “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.” It described the situation as “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”
More than a decade later, those numbers remain high. At the end of 2019, the FBI reported that it had records for close to 87,500 open missing persons cases in the US. In an interview, Maureen Reintjes, an advocate in Kansas City for families with missing relatives, reflected on the impact of those cases. Each of those missing people, she said, probably has at least five people in their lives, dealing with the loss. “That’s a hell of a lot of hurt out there,” she says.
Some communities have been disproportionately affected. Of the more than 19,800 open missing persons cases registered in NamUs, 16 percent are for Black individuals, despite the fact that they make up only 13.4 percent of the U.S. population. And while Black children go missing more frequently than white kids, their cases receive less media coverage. Similar disparities are seen for American Indians and Alaskan Natives, with many writers and advocacy groups describing a “crisis” and an “epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.”
Anderson works in Pima County, along the US-Mexico border, and his county deals with large numbers of unidentified bodies. Even though NamUs “is a great tool for law enforcement and medical examiners, coroners, the real bang for the buck is that the general public can see,” Anderson says.
Since 2010, Anderson estimates, he and his colleagues have entered around 2,000 cases into NamUs, and resolved around 400.
In an interview, Anderson described one of the first cases he entered into NamUs: that of a young man who had washed up dead in the Colorado River around 2000. His body had been buried for a decade in an anonymous public grave in sparsely populated La Paz County, Arizona. His case file, Anderson says— “probably six or eight sheets of paper”—was buried in a three-ring binder. Anderson put some of that information into the NamUs database, including details of a distinctive tattoo.
Not long after, he recalled, the man’s sister read an article in People Magazine about NamUs and went online to try it out. She searched for the tattoo—and, said Anderson, was able to make the connection. “She sent me a polaroid photograph of him that showed that tattoo on his arm,” Anderson said. A dental exam and fingerprints confirmed the match.
For families of the missing, some advocates said, NamUs can also offer hope—and a way to take a more active role in their own searches.
After Carolyn DeFord’s mother, Leona Kinsey, went missing from a small town in northeastern Oregon in 1999, DeFord expected a public search. “I had so much faith that law enforcement would do all this stuff, that they would make me a poster and that it would be everywhere—like, magically it would be everywhere,” DeFord says. Officers did take the missing person report. But, she recalled in a recent conversation, “I was told, ‘Thank you, give us a call if you hear anything’”—and little more.
Around 2007, DeFord received a call from the detective assigned to her mother’s case. They had not spoken, she says, “in probably three years.” The detective told her about NamUs. Soon, she sent in DNA samples through the program, to potentially help find a match. Her mother has a profile there, too, with key personal information.
“For me that was the first solid step that had ever been taken in my mom’s case,” says DeFord. “And this was a major acknowledgment and hope—it was the first big hope that, gosh, maybe she’s unidentified somewhere.”
Today, DeFord’s mother remains one of the long-term missing. A member of the Puyallup Tribe, DeFord started Missing and Murdered Native Americans, a small group that supports families with missing loved ones, a few years ago.
NamUs, she says, “has been a valuable tool for me as an advocate and as a resource as a family member.”
In 2011, stewardship of NamUs transitioned from the National Forensic Science Technology Center at Florida International University, which had helped launch the program, to the University of North Texas Health Science Center, in Fort Worth, which already housed a leading forensics lab at UNTCHI. Under the arrangement, NIJ would give an annual grant to UNTCHI. In turn, the Center would use the funds to manage the day-to-operations of NamUs, including offering free forensic services to assist with cases.
Today, in addition to the database and these forensic services, NamUs staff offer trainings to members of the public, law enforcement officers, and medical examiners. Nine regional program specialists, scattered across the country, provide expert input on cases. And a new victim services unit offers support to families.
The arrangement with UNT was renewed for five more years in 2016, though records posted on the NIJ website show funding amounts varied: In fiscal year 2017, NIJ awarded UNT $7.4 million. The next year, funding dropped to $5 million. For 2020, it came to around $4.2 million.
“They’re having a budget crisis,” sats Todd Matthews, a longtime NamUs staffer who was let go as the communications director in early 2020. In 1998, Matthews used internet sleuthing to solve the case of an unidentified woman in Kentucky who for decades was known only as “Tent Girl.” He went on to help pioneer online efforts to identify missing and unidentified persons, including as a co-founder of the Doe Network. In interviews and emails, Matthews described growing tensions at the program after the death of the UNTCHI director Art Eisenberg, who retired in 2017 and died the next year. Among other issues, he said, “I think NamUs is growing faster than it needed to,” adding support staff and focusing, in his opinion, too little on long-term sustainability.
In text messages, Alexander Branch, a spokesperson for the UNT Health Science Center, referred all requests for comment to NIJ, citing ongoing talks. Bruce Budowle, the executive director of UNTCHI, did not respond to requests for an interview.
In August, according to Anderson, UNT contacted some partners to alert them of significant funding issues, and to tell them to stop sending samples for DNA analysis. Soon after, he recalled, he heard the problem was resolved.
Still, it seems, issues remained. By early December, some staff were uncertain if they would still have a job on January 1. On December 4, senior staff at UNTCHI sent a letter to partners abruptly cutting off forensic services for all states except Texas. “At this time, NIJ is not able to provide sufficient funding for UNTCHI to continue such services,” the letter explained, adding that the staff was “dismayed about this situation” but unable to find a way to keep the programs running. “We apologize for the abruptness of this notification but we were directed by NIJ not to provide notification to customers at an earlier and more appropriate date,” the letter said.
Around that same time, UNTCHI announced on its website that it was dropping NamUs.
The wording of the statement caused some advocates to fear that the program would disappear completely. Reintjes started a Facebook group, Unite for NamUs, which attracted hundreds of members. In an interview with Undark that week, Jan Burke, an Edgar Award-winning crime novelist and longtime missing persons advocate, acknowledged that the turmoil at NamUs was coming in the midst of national upheaval. “Is this even a blip on the crisis radar?” she wondered. “But for these families, this would be killing off their hope.”
After an outcry from advocates, NIJ issued a statement promising that NamUs would still exist in January, but explaining that UNTCHI had not accepted the funding for fiscal year 2020 of $4.2 million. On December 8, though, the situation changed, according to an NIJ statement sent to Undark by Sheila Jerusalem, a spokesperson.
In the statement, NIJ said that UNT, “without authorization from NIJ,” had used its own website and accounts “to publish communications indicating that NIJ is discontinuing the NamUs program.”
“NIJ has no intention of discontinuing the NamUs program,” the statement added, noting that UNT had ultimately agreed to accept the $4.2 million grant.
The future of the program, though, still appears to be troubled. On December 9, Branch, the UNT spokesperson, wrote in a text that “talks are continuing,” so he was still unable to provide comment. After the deal between UNT and NIJ, Matthews said that he was still hearing reports of looming service and staff cuts.
Jerusalem, the NIJ spokesperson, did not initially answer repeated questions about whether NamUs services would be reduced in 2021, or whether any staff would lose their jobs. Hours before the publication of this story, NIJ sent a statement to Undark explaining that the agency was now “transforming the NamUs program from a cooperative grant award to a USDOJ contract.” During that process, the statement continued, “some services will be reduced or unavailable,” including free forensic services, trainings, and victim support. The online system, NIJ said, will “continue without interruption.”
According to the statement, UNTCHI “is temporarily ceasing acceptance of all new forensic casework from agencies outside the state of Texas.” NIJ also suggested that staff cuts are imminent. “In the short term,” the statement said in response to a question about future NamUs staffing, “some reduction in staff may be necessary to ensure UNT can address in-house casework.” NIJ added that longer-term staffing levels would “reflect that which is necessary to meet the requirements of the program.”
The situation could create issues for people who rely on NamUs. Anderson and his colleagues in Arizona, for example, have a grant from DOJ to exhume dozens of unidentified bodies from a county cemetery in the hope of cracking cold cases that stretch back to the 1960s. Knowing that UNTCHI, with funding from NamUs, would do DNA testing for free, Anderson said the team did not write the related expenses into their grant. When Anderson spoke with Undark on Thursday, those testing services, he said, still seemed to be suspended.
“Now we have almost all 50 of these skeletal sets of remains out of the ground, we’ve sampled a bunch of them, and right now there’s still a moratorium on sending samples for DNA processing,” Anderson said. The situation, he said, is “problematic.”
The turbulence has also alarmed some advocates. “You don’t want to remove something that’s helpful,” Kenny Jarels, the founder and president of the AWARE Foundation, which helps find missing persons, said last week. “If anything, you want to add more resources, because that’s what we need.”
Speaking last week, DeFord said she still felt upset with UNT, even after learning that the university and NIJ had reached a deal. “That initial statement that they put out really incited a lot of panic and fear amongst the community,” she said. The organization, she said, is working “with a vulnerable population” that “has been deeply, deeply, life-changing-impacted with a missing person.”
“To pull that rug out from under them in that manner was insensitive,” she added.
DeFord, like several other advocates interviewed by Undark, says she hopes that NamUs will receive permanent funding. Despite the renewed partnership with UNT, she’s still worried. “They have the funding, and that’s a relief,” she says. “But I think, for me, it still hangs over my head: What about next year?”