Helping Families Find Their Loved Ones: Long Term Cases

Out of all topics I planned on covering this blog-year, I believe this topic is probably covered the most, mainly because Team UIndy’s expertise lies in exactly this category: long term cases. However, in the past, long term cases have mostly been discussed on the unidentified persons side. This includes the exhumation process and the anthropological analysis. So, for this post, I will focus on the missing persons side of long term cases

What is a long term case? For us at the South Texas Human Rights Center, we don’t have a particularly clear definition, but a long term case can usually be defined as a case that we’ve exhausted all possible resources to find a family’s loved one. This means that we’ve evaluated the circumstances of the disappearance and have called hospitals, detention centers, Border Patrol, etc. (all only with the family’s permission) with no luck.

In these cases, we do everything we can to keep the case actively investigated. First, we conduct a full interview that covers everything we can possibly think of regarding the person who went missing and how they went missing. Our form is around ten pages long and takes about an hour to fill out. We want the family to know that any and all information is extremely important and can ultimately can lead to finding their loved one. We ask for dental records, medical records, and any other potentially identifying information. With the family’s permission, we can file a law enforcement missing persons report and enter the case into NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), which is an online database that allows the public to search among missing persons and unidentified persons cases in order to try and find matches. If applicable, we will send the case to other organizations to see if they can do anything to help. Finally, we try and collect a Family Reference Sample, which is a DNA sample that can be compared to DNA samples collected from unidentified human remains.

Missing in Harris County Day was an excellent example of all of our efforts to assist families wrapped into a single day. And while Team UIndy discussed the day in previous posts, I want to highlight some of the key successes of the day:

– We helped ten families through the entire process. Full interviews were conducted, cases were put in NamUs, DNA samples were collected, and ultimately families were provided with resources to help them find their missing loved one. Completing all of these processes is extremely difficult for so many reasons, and rarely happens. But on Saturday, we completed these processes for ten families. That is INCREDIBLE.

– We were able to help families whose loved ones were missing, not from the US, but from other countries. This is nearly an impossible feat. But thanks to the presence of the EAAF (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team), these families could be helped.

– We were able to provide families with explanations about the entire process by allowing families to interact with experts. Again, because of the complexities of the process, families are usually left with more questions than answers after an interview or after a DNA collection. But with everyone together in one room, families could have many questions answered.

These long term cases are extremely difficult in so many different ways. And through this process, I’ve come to hold one position in higher respect than any other position I’ve witnessed: the interviewer. I am extremely thankful for the volunteers who listened to families as they told heartbreaking stories, offering condolences and an open heart to any family who needed it. These volunteers truly and honestly put the families before everything else. Some go as far as to give families their personal phone numbers to allow families to call whenever they need someone to listen. These volunteers were present at Missing in Harris County Day, and are a continual source of inspiration and hope during this crisis. I know I’ve said before that no position is more important than another, but I have to briefly disagree as I reflect on the fact that for these volunteers, helping a family ALWAYS comes first.