Ohio and other states are not providing everything they can to help families track missing loved ones, according to experts. Full article from Ohio.
Despite the creation of a national database nearly a decade ago to assist in identifications, few states require their law enforcement and coroners use it. Currently, 14 percent of the estimated 85,000 missing persons and 33 percent of an estimated 40,000 unidentified remains across the country are included.
And of those cases that are entered, most are missing a key detail that can lead to an identification or exclusion in as little as one day. In Ohio, that detail – dental records – isn’t shared by the state’s crime lab in the name of privacy, which leads to delays or potential matches being overlooked, according to Todd Matthews, director of case management and communications for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).
“If I had a loved one missing, I would certainly want every piece of available data in the system … Much of the success of NamUs is allowing the criminal justice community to proactively search, compare and exclude in a process of elimination. Ohio cases simply will not share that benefit without those records,” Matthews said.
NamUs’ founding is rooted in a 2005 summit on the “silent mass disaster” of unidentified remains across the country. A key need identified was a national searchable repository of case information for both the missing and unidentified remains.
In 2009, an upgrade to the fledgling system made it capable of automatically cross-searching for potential matches it presents as side-by-side comparisons for law enforcement, coroners and NamUs’ forensic staff.
The database also is open to the general public with certain information, such as fingerprint and dental records, withheld.
As of the end of August, NamUs has aided in the identification of 788 unidentified remains cases across the nation. Currently, there are more than 11,000 cases in the database.
“If these records are uploaded into NamUs, the missing can be searched by allied professionals in every state of the union. The cost is nothing (to the local agency),” Matthews said.
However, few states require cases be uploaded into NamUs.
Chillicothe police Capt. Larry Bamfield was unaware of NamUs until 2014 when Charlotte Trego disappeared. Trego was the first of a series of women in Chillicothe reported missing in 2014 and 2015 and remains missing along with Wanda Lemons. Four other women have been found dead.
Bamfield entered both Trego and Lemons’ cases into NamUs within months of their disappearances. While the National Crime Information Center and a similar state system are helpful if someone missing is contacted alive by law enforcement, it’s not as effective if the person is dead, Bamfield said.
“If they find a body and they’re looking for someone forensically, this (NamUs) is what they look at,” Bamfield said.
In Ohio, case information on unidentified remains are required to be submitted to the state crime lab, which is overseen by the Attorney General’s Office. Although the lab isn’t required to submit them to NamUs, it does, but it does not submit missing person cases – roughly 1,200 on any given day – kept in its own public database. About a quarter of those are in NamUs, submitted by local law enforcement and families.
“The reason we don’t put all missing persons cases into NamUs is because the vast majority of missing persons are found within 48 hours,” said spokeswoman Jill Del Greco.
The office also withholds dental and fingerprint records related to those cases, a point of frustration for Matthews.
“It’s like trying to put together a puzzle without all of the pieces,” Matthews said.
While the identification capabilities of DNA gets a lot of focus, comparisons are more expensive and take months to do. If there are dental records, especially already within the database, a comparison can be done the same day and typically are the first cases checked for comparisons by NamUs staff.
Of the current missing person cases in NamUs, roughly two-thirds nationally and in Ohio don’t have dental records uploaded. The unidentified remains cases fair better, with 54 percent having dental records entered nationally and 64 percent in Ohio.
Missing dental records sometimes occurs because none can be found or teeth are incomplete in the case of the unidentified. However, Ohio’s decision to hold back dental records is rooted in privacy, Del Greco said, because NamUs can’t guarantee the records won’t be shared with non-law enforcement.
Power of teeth
The privacy argument is one Dr. Adam Freeman, president of the American Board of Forensic Odontology, has heard before and considers “a little ridiculous.”
“It’s the equivalent, to me, of saying we’re not going to use email … The public benefit of making them available to law enforcement outweighs the risk of someone seeing your X-rays,” Freeman said.
Local law enforcement in Ohio, according to Matthews, have submitted dental records to NamUs, but getting them becomes an issue when those records have been sent to the state crime lab. Up until about four years ago, Matthews said the state lab had shared dental records, but Del Greco said that was done in error.
That process creates a delay and “sort of defeats the purpose of the system,” Matthews said. Also, Freeman – who has been a forensic odontologist for 14 years – contends coding isn’t as useful as the Attorney General’s Office makes it seem.
Although coding can help narrow a search, thousands of people could still have the same general dental information, said Freeman. It can’t be used alone for positive identification and rarely can be the sole source to exclude someone.
As a result, when code brings up possible matches in the system, they are more likely to not be compared without a request from an agency when those X-rays aren’t in the system.
Del Greco said they meet with NamUs periodically, most recently in April, but officials were unable to guarantee records would not be shared with those “outside the realm of what Ohio law allows.” Neither Freeman nor Matthews are aware of any instance where NamUs information was inappropriately accessed.
“I can’t imagine my dental records would cause any embarrassment or harm,” Matthews said. “When someone is missing, there needs to be compromises.”