BOSTON (SHNS) – Permitting familial searches and partial DNA matches in investigations into certain unsolved homicides and missing persons cases is a crucial step in solving investigations, advocates and legislators said, pointing to legislation that would allow familial searches in Massachusetts.
At a virtual event with legislators and law enforcement officials, advocates pushed for the measure and highlighted a need for a more comprehensive statewide missing persons database that can be cross referenced with national databases.
A familial search is a deliberate search of the state’s DNA databank — also known as CODIS — with specialized software for biologically related relatives like siblings, parents, and children.
The bill (S 1595), sponsored by Sen. Anne Gobi, positions the state’s DNA database director as the “exclusive entity” to promulgate regulations permitting familial searching and the release of partial matches to prosecuting officers. It also sets up a familial search oversight committee that would oversee the process and be responsible for all decisions regarding the use of familial searching in cases.
The legislation permits familial searches when there is reasonable cause to believe that such a tool, using the crime scene DNA, would result in a partial DNA match, the crime is unsolved and all practicable investigative leads have been exhausted, and a prosecuting officer makes a written request, among other stipulations.
“It is so critically important that we band together to try and get that initiative passed here in Massachusetts,” said Rep. Todd Smola, referring to Gobi’s bill. “We have no pride of authorship or ownership in this bill, we want this to be a bill for Massachusetts that families can use as a tool to look at these cases that have gone unsolved and unaddressed over long periods of time.”
Speakers at Monday’s event also highlighted bills relative to missing person reports (H 2524), the statute of limitations for in civil child sexual abuse cases (S 1007), protecting children from enticement (S 1072), and preventing child sexual abuse by adults in positions of authority (S 132).
“This serves as an opportunity for us to reflect on what we as elected officials need to work on to prevent future suffering for our families,” House Speaker Ronald Mariano said in pre-recorded remarks. “We recommit ourselves to delivering justice for missing and murdered children and their loved ones. The House of Representatives will continue its work in enacting and strengthening legislation that protects our youth and our families.”
Advocates also want the state to create a missing persons database that houses and tracks missing person data and case status that law enforcement officials can then cross reference with national databases.
Dr. Ann Marie Mires, director of the Molly Bish Center and Forensic Criminology at Anna Maria College, said there are no statewide statistics that are kept or shared regarding missing persons in Massachusetts.
Nationwide statistics, she said, show up to 90,000 active missing person cases at any given time. Parallel to that, she said, there are also many cases that head to the state medical examiner that are unidentified.
“So this has created this national backlog of cold cases as referred to as that silent mass disaster,” Marie Mires said. “And that is why NAMUS was formed, to essentially warehouse that data at the national level, and they have Massachusetts data housed there.”
NAMUS, the National Unidentified Persons System, is billed as a national clearinghouse for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed cases throughout the United States. Marie Mires said state law directs officials to bring in all information about a missing child into a data system called the Criminal Justice Information System — another law enforcement database.
With so many databases and reporting systems at the national level, Marie Mires said it can be challenging to get a statewide understanding of the number of missing persons cases.
“So there really isn’t a mechanism or database or a warehouse where we can put all of these missing and unresolved cases,” she said. “And it’s been difficult over the years to get a sense of what that missing number is.”
In December, the Massachusetts Missing Persons Task Force published a report that reviewed current practices in missing persons cases by state and local law enforcement. In the report, the Task Force compiled the active number of cases in the state — 2,202, of which 57 percent involve children under the age of 18.
“The majority of these cases have remained open for 30 days,” Marie Mires said. “The report highlighted that despite federal programs and guidelines, Massachusetts lags behind in legislation to enforce guidelines and protocols tracking the active number of cases, and also inputting these cases into our national NAMUS database with only about 6 percent represented.”