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State Medical Examiner Office Role in Missing Person Cases
May 1, 2014



A recent story about new developments related to an Oregon man reported missing 88 years ago, and the use of DNA technology that may help connect his disappearance and remains found in 1986, has generated significant interest and calls to the Oregon State Police (OSP) Medical Examiner’s Office. To help answer some of the questions coming from interested persons, many asking about old cold cases, the OSP Medical Examiner’s Office is providing some information that may help answer those questions from concerned loved ones.
 
The word “missing" is one of those words that definitely perks our interest, but it can be frightening when used regarding a loved one. In January 2008, Senate Bill 351 amended Oregon's Missing Person law helping families who have missing relatives. By adding the tool of DNA analysis to the investigation through providing an important DNA sample that may be useful when a relative is missing, it may now be easier to identify a loved one's remains when they are found.
 
Senate Bill 351 (New Missing Persons Law) provides that if a person has been reported as missing, and has not been located within 30 days after the missing person report is made, the investigating law enforcement agency shall attempt to obtain a DNA sample for the missing person.
 
The State Medical Examiner’s Office does not take missing person reports. State and local law enforcement agencies should be contacted to report someone as missing. If the missing person hasn’t been located within 30 days after the report is made, an investigator may attempt to obtain a DNA sample of the missing person or from biological family members. Additionally, an investigator may attempt to obtain diagnostic quality copies of the missing person’s dental records from the missing person’s dentist(s) and/or Orthodontist.
 
DNA for a missing person investigation can be collected a couple ways. The first is to collect items that were used only by the missing person such as a tooth brush, razor, lipstick or a medical specimen preserved at a hospital. The second is to collect oral swabs from family members; a simple and painless process by swabbing the inside cheek of their mouth for about 10 – 15 seconds. A special DNA collection kit called a Family Reference Standard Kit (FRS) contains the swabs, gloves and paperwork needed to collect the DNA from family members. The FRS kits are supplied free from the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNT CHI), and several thousand kits have been provided to Oregon law enforcement agencies to assist in collecting DNA samples related to missing person investigations.
 
Collected samples are sent to UNT CHI where the DNA will be analyzed at a state-of-the-art facility, federally funded to offer free DNA analysis of the FRS and unidentified remains. Results are put in NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), a national DNA database of family members of missing persons. The database currently consists of nearly 10,000 cases.
 
Any records obtained by Oregon law enforcement agencies related to a missing person case will be forwarded to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for examination and possible entry into appropriate state and national databases, including NamUs.
 
When unidentified remains are found, the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office must initially examine them to determine if they are able to identify the person. They first use investigative processes such as dental record comparisons, patient medical history, and personal effects, to identify remains. If unidentified after these processes, the Oregon State Medical Examiner's Office will decide if the remains will be sent to UNT CHI for DNA analysis. At UNT CHI the remains will be analyzed using two types of DNA analysis and the results will be entered into NamUs for unidentified remains.
 
When a computer program is run comparing the national database of family reference samples to the unidentified remains database, it is looking for matches indicating a genetic relationship that the relatives would share. When a match is identified, the agencies that submitted the FRS and the unidentified remains will both be notified. This program has the capabilities to identify newly recovered remains and remains that have been in storage for years at medical examiner facilities across the country.
 
Since more than half of Oregon’s missing persons in the Law Enforcement Data System involve juveniles, the Oregon State Police Missing Children Clearinghouse (MCC) emphasizes to parents to be proactive by preparing an identification kit and keep it in their home so it could be available during the first hours a child is missing. The MCC provides free child identification kit that includes an area for a picture, fingerprints, dental records, physical information, and a DNA sample.
 
You can learn more about NamUs in this video: https://identifyus.org/en/home/how_it_works_video.