U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs

Regina B. Schofield, Assistant Attorney General
Office of Justice Programs

Regional Missing Persons Training Conference – East
Clearwater Beach, FL
September 19, 2005

Thank you, John, and good morning. I'm pleased to be here at this east regional training conference on missing persons.

I want to thank the National Forensic Science Technology Center for bringing us all together. I'll be going out to the center later this morning, and I look forward to getting a first-hand look at what happens when the worlds of science and criminal justice meet.

The issues surrounding the missing and unidentified dead are among the most important that we in the Office of Justice Programs are addressing. I applaud the center for working with us to build a more effective system.

We have a problem in this country. Everyone here knows what that problem is.

If you've read or heard about the report from our National Institute of Justice, you know we have a virtual DNA crisis in our law enforcement departments and crime labs. More than half-a-million cases involving crime scene samples either have yet to be sent to labs or are at labs but still awaiting analysis. About 52,000 are homicide cases. Some 170,000 are rape cases. These are serious crimes that have, in some cases, gone unsolved for years.

When you consider all the family members and loved ones of the victims - all the people who must be tortured by uncertainty and left to invent their own answers to some very troubling questions - the number of those affected multiplies wildly. For these people, DNA as a forensic tool can be a Godsend.

Through his DNA initiative, President Bush has committed $1 billion over five years to enhancing the use of DNA technology. Our National Institute of Justice is the primary player in this effort.

As of today, NIJ has awarded more than $200 million in funding to states and localities to expand the application of forensic science through DNA. Later today, when I'm at the center, I'll be making some announcements of additional funding under the initiative.

A major goal of the initiative is to eliminate the backlog of DNA samples awaiting analysis. And here, our investment is paying real dividends. In Honolulu, for example, the police department's crime lab has cut almost in half its backlog of untested evidence over the last two years, thanks to support from NIJ.

The potential of DNA to solve crime is enormous. New analysis techniques enable investigators to yield results from biological evidence invisible to the naked eye. And they make it possible to crack cases left unsolved for years.

Recently, OJP had the privilege of helping the Attorney General present an award to the Philadelphia Police for solving the seven-year-old case of a missing child.

The case involved an infant girl who was presumed to have died in a fire in 1997. A year-and-a-half ago, the girl's mother attended a party, where she saw the woman suspected of starting the fire. The woman was with a six-year-old girl who bore a resemblance to the baby. The mother managed to clip a strand of the girl's hair and submitted it to investigators. DNA analysis confirmed that it belonged to the missing child.

This is the kind of promise DNA can bring to your work, and we at OJP are striving to help fulfill that promise.

Finding the missing is one of the great possibilities of DNA. Because its implications for your work are so strong, I want to spend some time talking about the need to connect the missing with the unidentified dead.

As many of you know, the FBI's National Crime Information Center has a database of more than 100,000 missing persons cases. It also has listed some 5,800 sets of remains that have yet to be identified.

The problem is that only a few of those remains have their DNA information entered into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. CODIS, as you know, is the database that allows federal, state, and local crime labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles, and to link crimes to one another and to convicted offenders.

Interestingly, some 240 DNA profiles of unidentified remains are in the CODIS Missing Persons Database but are not recorded in NCIC. Added to the confusion is the fact that, by some estimates, the NCIC figures represent only a small number of the missing persons reported nationwide every year.

In addition to NCIC and CODIS, the FBI also manages the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program and the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Both are national databases that can assist with identifying the missing and unidentified remains.

Don't try too hard to remember all these names and numbers. The important thing is that no uniform system exists for checking information from different databases against one another. So you - the investigators, the medical examiners, the coroners - are unable to make important connections that will solve cases and bring answers to family members and loved ones.

The tragic implications are huge, as we've witnessed in the efforts to identify victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The New York City Medical Examiner's Office announced back in February that it had exhausted its ability to identify remains from the attacks. As a result, two of every five victims remain unidentified.

And we can probably expect that Hurricane Katrina will provide another tragic case in point. We have already geared up to respond to that disaster. Through NIJ, we are providing funding to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama under the President's DNA Initiative to aid in identifying the missing. We also will fund the University of North Texas Health Center to carry out analysis on the unidentified dead.

But we are also taking steps to address the fundamental breakdown that has hampered efforts such as these for so long. Last April in Philadelphia, we held a national strategy meeting on identifying the missing. Some of you were at that meeting. We organized it because we thought the time was right to streamline existing databases into a uniform registry for sharing data, and that's what the meeting was designed to initiate.

At the meeting, former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey announced that he had signed an order establishing a national task force composed of representatives from local, state, and federal law enforcement, forensic medicine, victim advocacy organizations, and other groups. The purpose of the task force is to review how the Department of Justice can improve the use of federal databases to solve missing persons cases and identify human remains.

We were gratified by the thoughtful and energetic participation of those of you who attended the meeting.

We looked to you for ideas and recommendations to improve identification of the unidentified dead. You discussed the importance of working across jurisdictional lines and the need for information sharing. You emphasized the importance of standardization in reporting, and access to a centralized database. You discussed ideas for public outreach and for working with families.

At the end of the conference, we held a late Friday afternoon strategy meeting to discuss our work to develop model state legislation for improving the reporting of missing persons and of unidentified remains. More than 70 people came to share their ideas.

By the end of the meeting, we had step-by-step provisions for improving the collection, analysis, and dissemination of information to aid in the identification of missing persons and human remains.

The Department recently approved the model state legislation. Among other things, it ensures that information that could help identify missing persons and human remains is promptly collected and reported to national databases. It suggests a mechanism for improving death scene investigations. It centralizes the reporting of remains within the state. It ensures that remains are delivered to a place where they can be examined appropriately. And it maximizes resources that can reduce the cost of identifying remains.

You can find the model legislation on the Web at www.dna.gov. In the near future, we'll be adding other explanatory information.

Also, we'll provide training to law enforcement officers, coroners, and medical examiners. In early 2006, our friends at the National Forensic Science Technology Center will sponsor the first in a series of regional cold-case training events.

This training will educate participants on strategies used to solve cold cases. They will offer information from model cold case units on how to prioritize cases, conduct interviews, use technology, and gain support. And they will identify the federal resources available to support you in your work.

This training is in addition to training already being offered by the Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The COPS Office is conducting DNA training through its Regional Community Policing Institute, using a curriculum on DNA evidence identification, collection, and preservation for law enforcement.

Because the issues surrounding DNA, missing persons, and the unidentified dead are so complicated and the systems so disjointed, we think that the training we provide is as important as the funding we award.

It's critical that law enforcement officers understand the need for giving serious care and attention to these cases. Without that care and attention, cases risk languishing. Take the case of Donna Williamson.

Donna was 19 years old when she disappeared from her North Texas home on an August day in 1982. No one ever saw her after that.

Her remains were found eleven years later, but no one knew they were hers until just last year. Thanks to a sheriff's detective in Tarrant County, who had the remains sent to the medical examiner, a DNA sample was extracted and tested, and matched with a sample from her mother, who lives here in Florida. Twenty two years after her disappearance, the mystery had been solved, courtesy of DNA.

Donna's story calls to light many issues - the amazing potential of DNA to solve crimes, the need for states to require that information on the missing be reported, the demand for uniformity in investigative procedures, and the tremendous need for a national database.

But perhaps the most important lesson is that technology alone is not the answer. A great deal depends on the commitment of law enforcement officers, investigators, medical examiners, scientists, and others. If not for the initiative of the detective and others in Donna Williamson's case, the database might as well not have existed. That is why we in the Department put great stock in training and education.

Donna's case should be the rule, not the exception. The anguish of families whose loved ones have disappeared should motivate us to find ways to find answers. We're on the right track, but we have a long way to go. We need your help to raise awareness of the problems and to identify effective solutions.

We appreciate the good work that all of you do every day. Somehow, in dealing with tragedy, you remain consummate professionals. Sometimes, frankly, I wonder how you do it.

We look forward to continuing our partnership with you and to the many positive changes that we have already begun to make together.

Thank you.

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