Identifying Missing Persons and Unidentified Decedents

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Missing Person Cases

If you ask most Americans about a mass disaster, they're likely to think of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Hurricane Katrina, or the Southeast Asian tsunami. Very few people — including law enforcement officials — would think of the number of missing persons and unidentified human remains in our Nation as a crisis. It is, however, what experts call "a mass disaster over time." [1]

NIJ provided grant funding to jurisdictions to help solve such cases under the Using DNA Technology to Identify the Missing Program. In addition, NIJ has funded:

  • Development and distribution of DNA reference kits — The University of North Texas Health Science Center developed two standardized collection kits. One kit provides a safe, effective, noninvasive means for obtaining the appropriate family reference samples. A second kit provides for the collection, transportation, and storage of human remains samples. For more information, contact the Center for Human Identification at 1-800-763-3147 or missingpersons@hsc.unt.edu.
  • DNA testing of unidentified remains — The University of North Texas Health Science Center is coordinating with medical examiners' offices, coroners' offices, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Center for Missing Adults, and law enforcement agencies to identify, collect and analyze unidentified remains and reference samples. Contact the Center at 1-800-763-3147 or missingpersons@hsc.unt.edu.
  • Information materials for families — see Identifying Victims Using DNA: A Guide for Families (also available in Spanish). 

Unidentified Decedents and Unclaimed Persons

Unidentified decedents are people who have died and whose bodies have not been identified.

Unclaimed persons are those who have been identified by name, but for whom no next of kin or family member has been identified or located to claim the body for burial or other disposition.

The NIJ-funded National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is the first national online repository for missing persons and unidentified dead cases. NamUs is a free online system that can be searched by medical examiners, coroners, law enforcement officials and the general public from all over the country in hopes of resolving these cases. Anyone can search this database using characteristics such as sex, race, distinct body features and even dental information.

NamUs includes three databases:

Learn more and interact with the database at NamUs.gov.

Identification in Mass Fatality Incidents

DNA analysis is the gold standard for identification of human remains from mass disasters. Particularly in the absence of traditional anthropological and other physical characteristics, forensic DNA typing allows for identification of any biological sample and the association of body parts, as long as sufficient DNA can be recovered from the samples. This is true even when the victim's remains are fragmented and the DNA is degraded.

While many effective laboratory protocols are available for DNA analysis, the analytical portion is only one part of the identification process. Special attention is required for:

  • Sample collection, preservation, shipping, and storage.
  • Tracking and chain of custody issues.
  • Clean, secure laboratory facilities.
  • Quality assurance and quality control practices.
  • Managing the work.
  • DNA extraction and typing.
  • Interpretation of results.
  • Automation.
  • Use of software for sample tracking and data management.
  • Use of an advisory panel of experts.
  • Public education and communication.
  • Privacy issues.

Developing strategies that address these features of DNA identification will facilitate the identification process.

See a detailed discussion of all of these issues in Lessons Learned From 9/11: DNA Identification in Mass Fatality Incident.

An extensive overview of forensic identification beyond DNA analysis can be found in Mass Fatality Incidents: A Guide for Human Forensic Identification, U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, June 2005.

Date Created: February 27, 2012