Funding standoff halts forensic ID of human remains

Special Reports

"We’re sitting on those cases just waiting for those resources to come back"

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — The news that a prolific DNA lab would no longer accept cases from outside of Texas sent Washington State Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Katherine Taylor “into a tailspin.” Although one part of the lab’s fight over federal funding seems to have been resolved, many in the forensic community are wary of whether it will last.

KOIN 6 News reported earlier this month on the troubles surrounding the University of North Texas, which manages the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) as well as the Center for Human Identification, a highly specialized DNA lab utilized by law enforcement agencies and medical examiners all over the country to help identify bodies or other human remains.

“There’s been this huge confusion and panic on my email lists among other forensic anthropologists going back and forth,” Taylor said. “Do we have it? Do we not have it? UNT didn’t communicate well when all of that stopped.”

Both services are funded by a grant from the National Institute for Justice (NIJ). The amount awarded to the University of North Texas has fluctuated over the past few years, from $4.7 million in 2016, to nearly $7.5 million in FY 2017 and back down to $5.5 million in FY 2019. Most recently, NIJ offered $4.28 million, which UNT originally deemed insufficient, leaving investigative agencies scrambling to figure out an alternative.

Even though UNT and NIJ seem to have reached an agreement over NamUs, the future of the DNA lab is still uncertain, meaning missing persons cases, unidentified remains, and even homicide investigations are stalled here in the Northwest. In some instances, agencies were fairly certain they knew who the unidentified person was, and already had family reference samples ready to send to the lab.

“We’re sitting on those cases just waiting for those resources to come back,” Taylor said. “I can’t even imagine the frustration for the families.”

It’s been almost a month now, with no word about when — or if — UNT will accept DNA samples again.

A recurring problem

Agencies first became aware of the problem in late November. On December 4, UNT sent official notice that it would not be continuing NamUs or DNA testing services for organizations outside of Texas because the NIJ had not provided “sufficient funding.” It marked the second time in less than four years the university had told agencies it would stop providing services.

In February 2017, the UNT Center for Human Identification made an almost identical announcement that it was unable to offer DNA and anthropological services to agencies outside of Texas. Six months later, it sent a follow up letter stating services would resume thanks to “the greatly appreciated support” of NIJ.

“We know they were important and they were loved, and if we can’t figure out who they are, we can’t find their families.”

Medical examiners in both Washington in Oregon are worried the last-minute funding fights could become a trend, leaving them in a lurch, with no way of knowing when, or if, they’ll be able to resume testing.

A forensic sketch of a woman whose remains were found by mushroom pickers in 1999 in Clatsop County (NamUs)

“Obviously we have concern about how stable that federal funding is, and it’s so very important,” Taylor said. “I can’t tell you how frustrating it is as medical examiner staff to have an unidentified. Because we know somebody’s missing them. We know they were important and they were loved, and if we can’t figure out who they are, we can’t find their families.”

When this happened in 2017, Taylor credited the public with getting funding restored.

“People all around the country went to their representatives,” she said. “It’s one thing for us, as medical examiners, to say it. But who’s really impacted by this are the families of the missing.”

She’d like to see a more permanent funding source, so investigations don’t regularly become a pawn in a monetary chess match.

There are 146 unidentified remains cases in Washington and 162 in Oregon right now, according to NamUs. That’s more than 300 people whose families don’t know what happened to them.

“Families that have a missing person don’t know where that person is,” Taylor said. “They’re living every day not knowing if that person’s safe, if they have enough to eat, if they’re sheltered. They need to know.”

A 2017 forensic sketch of a teen found in 1971 in Josephine County. She was identified as Annie Lehman, 16, of Aberdeen, Washington on March 14, 2019 (NAMUS)

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