Every day in the United States, authorities say that there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases. Every year, tens of thousands of people simply disappear under dubious circumstances. Since the advent of DNA as a criminological tool, law enforcement agencies have used distinctive genetic markers as a means to piece together puzzling crime scenes and missing persons investigations.
When America's Most Wanted lent a hand in the investigation of a teenage Jane Doe found dead along the coast of San Francisco in the 1970s, it brought to light a way for families of missing loved ones to help police get one step closer to solving a case.
For nearly 30 years, Tammy Vincent's family wondered what happened to her after she left home at 16. Meanwhile, cops in California were trying to determine the identity of the San Francisco Jane Doe, a woman whose body was found on a Marin County beach.
Tammy's family supplied their DNA to a national database, and computers were able to make a match: their genetic 'fingerprint' eventually provided law enforcement with a name to go with their teenage victim, and brought closure to a grieving family.
To sort through and identify DNA profiles, law enforcement agencies utilize a database called CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System. According to DNA.gov, CODIS is a computer software program that mines local, state, and national databases of DNA from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons.
CODIS software enables crime labs countrywide to compare DNA profiles electronically. By cross-referencing DNA profiles from recovered remains with the DNA profiles from the families of missing persons, law enforcement can put a name to their Jane and John Does.
AMW is working to get the word out about how relatives can submit DNA through their local law enforcement agency to the University of North Texas' Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) to assist in locating missing loved ones.
Families can voluntarily submit reference samples by contacting their local law enforcement agency. It is suggested that multiple family members offer DNA samples to provide a more complete sample for investigators to draw from. The agency will have to obtain collection kits prior to the sample being taken. The program is provided at no cost to families and law enforcement, thanks to funding provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The entire process takes approximately ten minutes and is non-invasive. Only law enforcement agencies can submit reference samples to UNTCHI. Family reference samples will be processed at UNTCHI, and the results will be entered into the National Missing Persons Database. Once the samples are entered into the database, the search for their loved ones will be carried out on a routine and continuous basis.