An Effort to Find the Missing Missing

Legislation named for a missing 31-year-old man would tie together the various data threads on the nation's missing persons.
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A bill currently wending its way through the U.S. Congress seeks to simplify the way state and federal officials keep track of missing persons, as well as help keep family members informed of the progress of their cases.

The "Help Find the Missing Act" has been dubbed "Billy's Law," after Billy Smolinski, a 31-year-old Connecticut resident who went missing in 2004. Co-sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, and Rep. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., the bill would combine the National Missing and Unidentified Person System database, or NamUs, the only federal missing persons and unidentified remains database accessible to the public, with the National Crime Information Center, the FBI's database.

"A family that has lost a loved one to violent crime is forced to bear a terrible burden," said Poe during recent testimony before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. "This burden is made even worse when the family is not able to determine what exactly happened to their loved one."

There are more than 100,000 unsolved missing persons cases open at any given time, and nearly 4,400 unidentified human remains are found in an average year. Some of the latter are not only from those reported missing by friends and family members, but belong to the "missing missing," the drifters, runaways and prostitutes whose absence is never recorded.

As Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis professor Kenna Quinet told Miller-McCune in 2008, identifying the missing often is "an information issue. ... It's a matter of in the U.S. we did not have a system that linked missing persons and unidentified dead."

The bill, Murphy said during the same hearing, aims to fill some loopholes and address this situation. "Many local law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and coroners don't have the resources to report missing adults and unidentified remains," he said. "There is no central database to report missing persons and unidentified remains," and "many local law enforcement personnel do not know about the federal missing persons databases or how best to handle these cases."

Billy's Law aims to rectify this situation by combining NamUs and the FBI database, creating grants to encourage reporting to the connected databases and requires the Department of Justice to issue information about the databases, and the best ways to respond to these cases, through grants that would train personnel on how to submit information to the databases
"Looking for your missing loved one becomes a full-time job," said Janice Somlinski, Billy Smolinski's mother, who also testified at the hearing. "You have to continually hound the police, knock on doors, make phone calls, visit the media. NamUs makes this process easier as you can both enter information yourself and search the database. Moreover, the connected NCIC/NamUs database that the legislation creates increases the chances of finding answers."

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