The future of a national missing persons database uncertain

Investigations

Families, law enforcement and medical examiners use NamUs to help with missing and unidentified person cases. (KXAN Photo/Arezow Doost)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Multiple sources tell KXAN investigators it’s not clear what will happen to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, based in north Texas. 

It’s used by police, the medical examiner and families in Central Texas and across the country to help with missing persons cases. 

Sources explained about 30 employees were laid off after the holidays, but this morning some got their jobs back. 

“I don’t know what is going on,” explained one source, who has been taking calls from families all week finding out about the layoffs. “I’ve gotten calls from law enforcement agencies wanting to know what’s going on — is NamUs going to continue.”

The federal database housed at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth (UNTHSC), which already had a separate forensics lab, uses fingerprints, DNA profiles and dental records to help solve missing and unidentified person cases. 

Funding cut concerns

Sources said recent federal funding cuts have impacted services including DNA testing.

They explained that dental and fingerprints are no longer being examined and compared. Also, victim services is no longer available for families needing help.

A spokesperson with the Austin Police Department which uses NamUs said, “We don’t yet know how this is likely to impact our operations.”

The Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office said there’s been no disruption in services.

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) funds NamUs. KXAN investigators have been trying to get answers from NamUs for weeks, but have been referred to NIJ. 

On Tuesday, NIJ spokesperson Sheila Jerusalem said in an email, “We presently have no one to make available for an interview. If that changes, I’ll let you know. I’ll check to see if we are able to provide a written response to your questions.” 

KXAN has yet to receive a response, but last month Jerusalem told investigator Arezow Doost the current agreement with the university will end in September. She did not explain what would happen afterwards.

“There’s no dependability in the system. How can a law enforcement agency with whom we promise these resources to be available to you — how can they depend on NamUs if it’s — if it’s here today, gone tomorrow, back the next day,” said one source. 

Not all police in Texas report cases to NamUs

States including New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma and New Mexico have passed laws requiring police to report all missing persons cases to NamUs, but not Texas. 

Many families with missing loved ones wonder why, given it’s based in the state for the time. They shared their concerns in KXAN’s “Mayberry Texas” investigation. 

Texas House Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth said in the series he would explore the possibility of legislation requiring Texas police to report certain details to the system. NamUs is in his district. 

As the next legislative session approaches, his office has yet to respond regarding possible legislation. 

A spokesperson for newly elected Texas House Representative Lacey Hull, (R- Houston) said they’re looking into the possibility of expanding law enforcement utilization of NamUs after talking to voters during the election.

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