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Friday, November 4, 2011

Missing Adults: Background, Federal Programs, and Issues for Congress

Adrienne L. Fernandes-Alcantara
Specialist in Social Policy

Adults may go missing due to choice, an abduction, foul play, a mental or physical disability, or a natural catastrophe, among other reasons. Although no accurate estimates exist of the number of missing adults, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported that as of January 1, 2011, nearly 50,000 missing adult cases were pending in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) system, a federal computerized index with data on crimes and locator files for missing and unidentified persons. Certain adults are particularly vulnerable to missing episodes; for example, those with dementia are at risk for wandering. Adults who engage in high-risk behaviors, including involvement in gang activity, may also be more prone to going missing.

Unlike children, adults have the legal right to go missing under most circumstances. As a result, families of missing adults may receive limited assistance from state and local law enforcement entities in recovering their loved ones. The federal government has not been involved in assisting law enforcement entities with missing adult cases in the same way it has with missing children cases. Further, cases of missing children and young adults under the age of 21 must be reported to the NCIC, while reporting missing adults to the database is voluntary. In recent years, however, the federal government has increasingly played a role in (1) preventing certain types of missing adult incidents; (2) working to recover adults who go missing, including those who are deceased and for whom only remains can be found; and (3) supporting databases, including NCIC, that maintain records of missing adults and unidentified remains.

Recognizing the needs of a growing aging population, Congress authorized funding for the Missing Alzheimer’s Disease Patient Alert program under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322). The program has awarded funds to the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit organization that provides research on Alzheimer’s disease, since FY1996 to protect and locate missing individuals with dementia through a patient identification program, as well as outreach and education efforts. In 2000, Congress passed Kristen’s Act (P.L. 106-468) to permit the Department of Justice (DOJ) to make grants to establish a national clearinghouse for missing adults and provide technical assistance to law enforcement agencies in locating these individuals. From FY2002 through FY2006, DOJ made grants for these purposes.

In addition, the federal DNA Initiative has also supported efforts to recover missing persons and identify unidentified human remains by funding DNA analysis and providing related assistance. In addition to the NCIC, federal support is provided to the National DNA Index System (NDIS), which stores criminal information as well as individuals believed to be missing, their relatives, and unidentified human remains; and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), which includes databases for missing adults and unidentified remains. Records are submitted to most of the databases by authorized law enforcement agencies, state missing persons clearinghouses, medical examiners and coroners, or DNA laboratories. Nearly all of the databases can be accessed only by authorized law enforcement and other personnel; however, records in NamUs can also be reviewed by the public.

Policymakers and other stakeholders have increasingly focused on the coordination of the federal databases on missing persons, as well as the role of the federal government in providing assistance to states and localities to develop alert systems and technology to locate missing adults. Many states have developed alert systems to recover vulnerable adults who have gone missing. For further information about these systems, see CRS Report R40552, Alert Systems for Missing Adults in Eleven States: Background and Issues for Congress.

Date of Report: October 25, 2011
Number of Pages: 23
Order Number: RL34616
Price: $29.95

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