Opening Statement on H.R. 3695, the Help Find the Missing Act
Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA) entered the following opening remarks into the Congressional Record:
Thank you, Mr. Chairman for organizing this hearing to discuss H.R. 3695, the "Help Find the Missing Act," and how we can strengthen and expand private citizens' access to the Department of Justice's databases on missing persons and unidentified remains. I also want to thank our panel of witnesses for their participation in today's hearing and commend my colleague Rep. Christopher Murphy for his work on this very important issue that has impacted many Americans across the country.
I know that many of us have constituents who have missing loved ones, and we are fully aware of the despair and hopelessness many experience in their efforts to find relatives who have disappeared. Unfortunately, current procedures and policies seem to frequently fail the families of missing individuals. This is especially true for missing persons who are neither children nor senior citizens because there are special practices established for those groups. The number of missing adults in America who are never found is staggering. Unfortunately, all too often ill-informed local law enforcement authorities fail to give families access to helpful databases.
Last September, a young woman from my district named Mitrice Richardson went missing under questionable circumstances. While I won't elaborate now on the specifics of the case, I believe the local authorities could have done more, earlier in the process, to assist Mitrice's family. Nonetheless, since her disappearance, Mitrice's family has courageously mounted a formidable public campaign to find her. While some would simply be unable to gather the strength to endure the daily prospect of not knowing if they will see their loved one again, Mitrice's family has mobilized the community both to find her and to hold local officials accountable for some of the missteps they took early in the investigation. Only after months of television appearances, mass mailings, and petitions organized by Mitrice Richardson's family and friends did the Los Angeles Police Department begin to devote the necessary resources to find her. Our constituents believe local law enforcement should have the necessary training and resources to investigate and find their missing relatives. Sadly, not every family or friend of missing adults will have the time, energy, and resources to devote towards their own private search and investigation. Regardless, we cannot expect family members to act alone in such cases. It is the responsibility of law enforcement to inform relatives of all available databases and information at their disposal so that the family may feel more involved in the search for their missing loved one.
Each year, tens of thousands of Americans are reported missing and are never found. Although no accurate estimates exist of the number of missing adults, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that as of January 1, 2008, over 50,000 missing adult cases were pending in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). In addition to the NCIC, in 2007, the Justice Department established the "NamUs" database, an online repository for information about missing persons. While NCIC access is limited to law enforcement officials, the public can access the "NamUs" database and submit information regarding a missing person. However, law enforcement officials are not legally required to submit information on missing adults to either database.
If enacted, H.R. 3695 would establish a grant program to provide incentives for law enforcement agencies, coroners, and medical examiners to enter information about missing persons and unidentified remains into the NCIS and NamUs databases. The bill further provides for increased coordination among the databases by directing the Justice Department to transmit information about missing persons and unidentified person from the NCIC database to the NamUS database.
The families of missing Americans endure great hardship and emotional pain, and we must ensure that our local authorities are adequately trained and employ all available resources and tools in order to assist families of missing persons. This is critically important, especially in cases involving missing adults, where effective coordination and information-sharing systems among authorities is frequently lacking.
Therefore, Mr. Chairman, I look forward to hearing testimony from our witnesses so that we can begin to address some of the failures related to local law enforcement handling of cases involving missing adults. I believe that H.R. 3695 would help improve investigations. I am especially pleased that the legislation would require the Department of Justice to issue a report to law enforcement agencies, coroners, and medical examiners concerning best practices for collecting reporting information about missing and unidentified persons. While the FBI does not typically investigate all cases involving missing adults, it can certainly do more to provide our local and state authorities with vital tools and information so that they can be more helpful and effective in their investigations of missing adults.