Saturday, August 18, 2018
Opinion

Column: Florida's search for the missing

Vanished. Gone in an instant. We as a nation have come to recognize that children who are abducted by strangers are often murdered within three hours of their disappearance and usually only a few miles from their homes. These cases understandably get widespread media coverage. But what about missing adults? More often, they are presumed gone by choice unless evidence of foul play exists, which results in many cases slipping through the cracks.

Changing investigative practices, budgetary constraints, rising stranger homicides and the mobility of offenders over the past 40 years have left us with an enormous cold case problem. Consider that in Florida there are more than 3,200 missing person cases. Nationwide, there are more than 84,000 reported missing persons. Too often, the missing are victims of homicide who are killed violently but a body has not yet been recovered. When their cases remain open and unsolved, justice is delayed.

We know these are low numbers because decades ago we did not have the tools and resources we possess today. Each case represents grieving friends and family who exist in a living nightmare, not knowing what happened to their loved one or where to turn for help. Many families lack support because their cases are designated as "non-crimes" or "just a missing person."

This is an agonizing reality for families and a public safety issue for us all.

Many states recognize this problem. Across the country, law enforcement officials have begun hosting missing person days, which are public events to share information and resources with families of the missing and the public. Here, the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida, the Pasco Sheriff's Office and 12 law enforcement agencies from around the state are taking a leadership role in tackling the problem and will host the first Missing in Florida Day on Saturday at the USF Marshall Center in Tampa. This event is an opportunity for families of missing persons to sit down with law enforcement to file a missing person report or update existing records by giving DNA samples, dental information, photographs or other biometric information.

It is also a chance to learn about resources and connect with other families in similar situations. No one is there to judge. No one will ask about someone's immigration status or say, "I'm sorry but this isn't our jurisdiction." They are simply there to solve cases and are dedicated to one mission: to find the missing.

How big a problem is this?

It is estimated that since 1980 there are more than 280,000 unsolved homicide cases. Florida has about 1,000 homicides a year with a 62 percent clearance rate. We don't solve cold cases at an annual rate of 40 percent, so the problem is growing on top of the 10,000-plus existing open cases we already have. That's a lot of murderers who walk free.

Solving our most complex crimes is a collaborative effort. The police, medical examiners, prosecutors, forensic scientists, artists and academics have to work together. Allying with universities like USF to bring the latest science and technology to the investigative process is a positive and ongoing step. Continued support from the public for funding through the legislative process is necessary to keep our communities safe.

Consider that last month we hosted the Second Annual Art of Forensics event. This was an effort to highlight select cases of John and Jane Does to identify victims. Florida has nearly 900 unidentified victims, John and Jane Does whose remains are sitting in storage or buried in nameless graves. Most are not reported missing. At the event, one family thought they recognized their sister among the clay busts. A missing person file was created by the Tampa Police Department and DNA samples provided by the family on site were submitted for comparison. That's one more family added to the system — their results are pending.

We hope the Missing in Florida event will bring many more families forward, generate new reports that lead to the identification of our John and Jane Does, and resolution to some of Florida's toughest cases. The missing and unidentified should never be forgotten. We should continue to make this a priority for Florida.

Erin H. Kimmerle is director of the Florida Institute for Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences and associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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