USING DNA TO IDENTIFY MISSING PERSONS
Families of missing persons who are presumed dead face tremendous emotional turmoil when they are unable to learn about the fates of their loved ones. The events of September 11, 2001 demonstrated on a national scale the potential for anguish when the remains of a missing person go unidentified. In the wake of this tragedy, the Department of Justice brought together DNA experts from across the country to develop improved DNA analysis methods identifying the World Trade Center victims.
Despite tremendous scientific advancements, DNA technology is not routinely used in missing persons cases. According to statistics maintained by the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there are nearly 5,000 reported unidentified persons in the United States. This element of the President’s initiative will help identify the missing, and in doing so, will provide an increased sense of closure to their families.
The FBI’s Missing Persons DNA Database Program currently provides the essential infrastructure for identifying human remains. This database maintains two indices of DNA samples. The first index contains DNA profiles of relatives of missing persons and the second contains DNA profiles of unidentified human remains. Successful identifications require that both profiles be entered. Currently, this database is not used to its full potential. States have only recently begun to conduct DNA analysis on human remains and to submit the results to the FBI for inclusion in its database. Many unidentified human remains continue to be disposed of without the collection of DNA samples. Further, even when the samples are collected, many crime labs lack the capacity to conduct timely analysis, especially where the biological sample is old or degraded. In addition, many family members and law enforcement officials lack sufficient information about the existence of the program and how to participate.
The President’s initiative will help ensure that DNA forensic technology is used to its full potential to identify missing persons. The initiative will:
- Provide outreach and education to medical examiners, coroners, and law enforcement officers about the use of DNA to identify human remains and to aid in missing persons cases;
- Make DNA reference collection kits available to these state and local officials;
- Support the development of educational materials and outreach programs for families of missing children and adults;
- Encourage states to collect DNA samples before any unidentified remains are disposed;
- Strengthen crime lab capacity (see page 4) to enable more state and local labs to conduct timely DNA analysis of biological samples from unidentified human remains;
- Provide for the analysis of degraded and old biological samples through the FBI’s Mitochondrial DNA Analysis Program (see page 5);
- Provide technical assistance to state and local crime labs and medical examiners on the collection and analysis of degraded remains through the FBI and the National Institute of Justice; and
- Support research and development of more robust methods for analyzing degraded, old, or compromised biological samples (see page 6).
The President’s initiative will devote $2 million in FY 2004 for outreach programs and the development of educational materials and reference collection kits.