The NamUs Program and Management
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, is the national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases throughout the United States. NamUs is funded and administered by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) and managed through a contract with RTI. All NamUs resources are provided at no cost through funding from NIJ. The NamUs program brings people, information, forensic science, and technology together to help resolve missing and unidentified person cases across the country.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). NIJ is dedicated to improving knowledge and understanding of crime and justice issues through science.
The Missing/Unidentified Person Problem
Each year, over 600,000 individuals go missing in the United States. Fortunately, many missing children and adults are quickly found, alive and well. However, tens of thousands of individuals remain missing for more than a year – what many agencies consider “cold cases”. On any given day in the United States, there are approximately 90,000 active missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC).
There is no universal definition for a long-term missing person. Different investigating agencies may have different timeframes or mandates that define “long-term”. In addition, various state and federal laws may legislate the period of time passed when an agency should enter a missing or unidentified person case into NamUs. Case circumstances may also warrant the entry of a missing person case into NamUs; however, that entry is at the discretion of the investigating agency. Operationally, NamUs considers cases greater than 180 days as “long-term.” This is a shorter time frame but still consistent with NIJ’s National Best Practices for Implementing and Sustaining a Cold Case Investigation Unit definition of a “cold case” and other recommendations.
In fact, the NamUs database reflects that in 2023, greater than 90% of missing person cases in NamUs are older than 180 days and 40% are older than 20 years. Users should consider this timeframe when adding a case to NamUs.
[note 1] Billy’s Law, S.5230, 117th Congress (2021 – 2022), 2022, https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/5230/text/pl .
[note 2] White House Domestic Policy Council, U.S. Department of Interior, U.S. Department of Justice, Not One More: Findings & Recommendations Of the Not Invisible Act Commission, November 1, 2023, 47, recommendation B3, 34 NIAC Final Report version 11.1.23_FINAL.pdf (justice.gov).
NamUs is the most robust database of unidentified person cases in the United States. There are currently over 13,000 active unidentified decedent cases published in NamUs. It is estimated that there are 4,000 unidentified decedents recovered throughout the United States, with an additional 1,000 unidentified bodies being added to this number each year.
An unclaimed person is a decedent who has been identified by name, but for whom no next-of-kin has been located to make death notifications or have the remains claimed for burial or cremation. The names of unclaimed persons can be searched in NamUs.
NamUs is currently the only national database of cases involving unclaimed persons. For a current number of unclaimed persons cases in NamUs, please see this table at https://namus.nij.ojp.gov/#the-success-of-namus.
The NamUs database is the technology that drives missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person case resolutions and is part of the suite of free services offered through the NamUs program. The NamUs database application contains a secure, easy-to-use, centralized online database that serves as a national clearinghouse of information which includes case management, advanced searching, and automatic matching tools. The NamUs database is searchable by everyone; however, sensitive case data are only accessible to appropriate, vetted, professional users.
Professional users of NamUs are personnel from law enforcement agencies, medical examiner offices, and coroner offices, as well as allied professionals such as forensic subject matter experts. Professional users must register, provide a sponsor who can verify criminal justice employment, and be vetted by NamUs Regional Program Specialists (RPSs) prior to activation in the NamUs system. Once activated, professional users can search/view case information to include dental records, fingerprint cards, and law enforcement sensitive information, and they can add, edit, and track cases per their authorized permissions in the system.
Public users of NamUs are family members of missing persons, volunteers, staff from missing person advocacy groups, and the general public. Public users may enter new missing person cases into NamUs, track cases, and search/view all publicly-visible information in NamUs case files. All public case entries are vetted with the appropriate investigating agency prior to being made publicly viewable in NamUs.
All case entries are vetted with the appropriate local, state, federal, or tribal law enforcement agency prior to publication in NamUs. This vetting includes a review of the case data for accuracy, completeness, and appropriateness for public viewing. Once a case is vetted and NamUs obtains permission from the investigating agency, the case is published in NamUs for public viewing and searching.
Prior to publication, all cases entered into NamUs are reviewed to ensure that a missing person report is on file with a local, state, federal, or tribal law enforcement agency, and that NamUs has the permission of that agency to publish the case information in the NamUs database. This vetting process ensures the protection of persons reported missing to NamUs, while also ensuring that investigations are not compromised by the dissemination of information that is sensitive to law enforcement or the investigation.
Missing, unidentified, and unclaimed person cases entered into NamUs may be unpublished, published, or archived. Upon permission from the investigating agency, an unresolved case is published in NamUs and will remain published until the missing person has been located, the unidentified decedent has been identified, or next of kin has been located to facilitate a death notification and have the remains claimed for burial or cremation. Upon resolution, a case is permanently archived in NamUs, but no longer accessible for viewing to public or professional users, with the exception of the professional user(s) attached to the case as a Case Contributor.
Internet search engines like Google use proprietary algorithms that typically filter and remove inactive case pages within 8-12 weeks from the time that the case is archived. If an investigating agency, family member, or previously reported missing person would like to expedite the removal of archived cases from internet search engines, please contact our support team via our toll-free hotline at (833) 872-5176 or by email at [email protected].
All registered users can perform advanced searches and export publicly viewable case information directly from NamUs. Data is exported in a CSV file and is limited to 10,000 cases. To export greater than 10,000 cases, NamUs suggests exporting in batches based on the state associated with the case. See our advanced user guide for detailed instructions on this functionality.
The demographics of missing persons are entered into NamUs at the discretion of family members or the investigating agency assigned to the case. We recognize the current version of NamUs is limited with regards to entering data for transgender individuals in the missing persons database. Because NamUs also identifies human remains, the biological sex may be used to determine the decedent’s identity in the unidentified persons database. NamUs is actively engaged with members of the transgender community to provide input on addressing concerns and sensitivities about missing transgender community members while improving the solvability of our cases. This vital community input will help inform advancements or modifications to the existing database.
Researchers should be mindful that use of NamUs is not federally mandated, therefore, the NamUs database only contains information on individuals who have been voluntarily reported as missing, unidentified, or unclaimed to NamUs. The NamUs database does not include information on all missing, unidentified, and/or unclaimed persons nationwide. Data fields to capture race, ethnicity, age, sex assigned at birth, and other demographic markers reflect the information entered into the NamUs database by the reporting party. Publicly viewable cases do not include those that have been resolved, as once a NamUs case is resolved it is archived. Archived cases are restricted from public view and considered exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) as records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information (A) could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, (B) would deprive a person of a right to a fair trial or an impartial adjudication…” (5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(7). NIJ is not typically privy to the status of such investigations or agency proceedings. Thus, publicly viewable data do not represent all NamUs cases.
Missing Indigenous Person Cases
NamUs provides free database technology, forensic services, and investigative support to resolve missing indigenous person cases, as well as murdered indigenous person cases when the decedent’s identity is unknown. In addition, NamUs supports unidentified indigenous person cases where the decedent’s manner of death is not known, or was due to circumstances other than homicide. At present, NamUs participates in outreach events in tribal communities across the country. For a current number of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) missing persons cases published in NamUs, please refer to our Monthly NamUs Case Reports page here: https://namus.nij.ojp.gov/library/reports-and-statistics
Several states have passed legislation to aid in the investigation and/or collection of data related to missing and unidentified indigenous persons. Those states are:
- North Dakota
- South Dakota
Other Federal Databases
NCIC stands for the National Crime Information Center, which is an FBI system used by law enforcement agencies across the country. The NCIC database currently consists of 21 files. There are seven property files containing records of stolen articles, boats, guns, license plates, parts, securities, and vehicles. There are 14 persons files, including Supervised Release, National Sex Offender Registry, Foreign Fugitive, Immigration Violator, Missing Person, Protection Order, Unidentified Person, Protective Interest, Gang, Known or Appropriately Suspected Terrorist, Wanted Person, Identity Theft, Violent Person, and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) Denied Transaction. The system also contains images that can be associated with NCIC records to help agencies identify people and property items. The Interstate Identification Index, which contains automated criminal history record information, is accessible through the same network as NCIC. For more information, visit the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services webpage.
ViCAP stands for the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which is a nationwide data center designed to collect, collate, and analyze information on crimes of violence, such as homicides, sexual assaults, kidnappings, and missing person cases. ViCAP is a program of the FBI responsible for the analysis of serial violent and sexual crimes, organizationally situated within the Critical Incident Response Group’s (CIRG) National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC). ViCAP fosters the sharing of case information amongst law enforcement agencies across the country.
The National Child Search Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5779, 5780) mandates that every missing child reported to law enforcement be immediately entered into NCIC. While NamUs poses no restrictions on the timeframe for entering a new missing child or adult cases into the NamUs 2.0 system, many agencies choose to enter longer-term missing person cases, and/or cases where all investigative leads have been exhausted. This results in NamUs receiving reports of primarily long-term cases, with 95% of the current published cases in NamUs 2.0 involving persons missing one year or more.
States With Legislation that Includes NamUs
At present, sixteen states have passed legislation mandating the use of NamUs for missing and/or unidentified persons cases. Those states are:
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- West Virginia
NamUs Forensic Services
Forensic odontology is the use of dental evidence for personal identification. Dental radiographs, written treatment records, and other dental information can be uploaded to NamUs, to be available to authorized criminal justice users and allied forensic professionals for comparison and identification or exclusion.
AFIS is an acronym that stands for Automated Fingerprint Identification System and is used to describe any automated system that is used to obtain, store, and analyze digital fingerprint data. NamUs utilizes a Cogent AFIS (CAFIS) system to store, search, and compare digital fingerprint data for missing and unidentified persons prior to national fingerprint searching.
NGI is an acronym that stands for Next Generation Identification, which replaced the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). NGI incorporates fingerprint and palm print searching with other biometric searches to make identifications, including identifications of decedents.
Since 2017 NamUs has collaborated with the FBI Latent Print Support Unit to search all fingerprints of unidentified decedents submitted to NamUs through NGI. To date, over 250 fingerprint hits have resulted from these efforts, with the oldest resolved case dating back to 1975.
Forensic anthropology is the analysis of skeletal remains to distinguish historical/archaeological remains from modern remains, develop biological profiles – such as sex, ancestry, stature, and age – to aid searches for possible matches, identify skeletal remains based on comparisons of medical and radiographic information, and analyze trauma to contribute to determination of cause and manner of death.
Nuclear DNA is found in the nucleus of a cell and can be used to develop STR and Y-STR DNA profiles for the identification of human remains. STRs are the primary genetic markers used in human identification worldwide. Y-STRs are unique in that they are found only in males and thus provide information inherited only through paternal lineage. Lineage markers allow for use of family reference samples beyond first-order relatives.
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is found in the mitochondria of a cell and contains genetic material inherited from the maternal lineage. mtDNA is an important forensic tool, as it is the most sensitive marker for typing challenged samples, providing results often when STR profiles cannot be obtained from unidentified remains. mtDNA provides information only through the maternal line. Lineage markers allow for use of family reference samples beyond first-order relatives.
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is the FBI’s program of support for criminal justice DNA databases, as well as the software used to run these databases. CODIS operates on three levels: The Local DNA Index System (LDIS), which is used by city and county laboratories, the State DNA Index System (SDIS) where profiles from laboratories across the State can be compared, and the National DNA Index System (NDIS), where profiles from laboratories across the country can be compared. For more info visit the FBI CODIS FAQ Page.
Family members can provide voluntarily DNA samples to be profiled and uploaded to CODIS, where they can only be searched against the profiles of unidentified persons or remains in CODIS to locate their missing loved one (34 U.S.C. § 12592(a)(4)). DNA profiles for family members cannot be searched against the CODIS profiles of arrestees or convicted offenders, or profiles of unknown suspects who have committed crimes.
Two or more close biological relatives of the missing person should provide DNA samples for searching in CODIS. One of these relatives, whenever available, should always be a maternal relative. Samples must be collected by a law enforcement officer or other criminal justice personnel, and relatives must sign a consent form indicating their willingness to provide their DNA for searching against the profiles of unidentified persons and remains in CODIS.
Following 34 U.S.C. §12592 (b)(3)(A), DNA information will be released only to criminal justice agencies for identification purposes and for comparison to DNA profiles related to the disappearance of individuals indexed in the CODIS database. The DNA profiles obtained from family members of missing persons will only be searched against the DNA profiles from unidentified persons stored at NDIS. Genetic profiles related to missing and unidentified person investigations are not stored in NamUs, and NamUs RPSs and other non-DNA personnel do not have access to these profiles.
The DNA records of relatives of a missing person will remain in CODIS and be searched against missing persons and unidentified human remains profiles until one of the following happens: (1) the missing person has been identified; or (2) the family member who voluntarily provided the DNA sample is determined not to be related to the missing person; or (3) the family member who voluntarily provided the DNA sample requests in writing that it be removed.
After an identification is confirmed, the DNA profiles from the relatives of a missing person are removed from the database. In the event of only partial remains being located and identified, laboratory personnel may decide to allow the family member’s DNA profile(s) to remain in the database to assist with possible future recoveries. The family member who voluntarily provided the DNA sample may request in writing that the DNA profile be removed from CODIS at any time.