Guest column: Missing persons a ‘silent mass diaster’

Around 600,000 people are reported missing nationally every year; 2,000 of those people are from Arizona. Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Around 600,000 people are reported missing nationally every year; 2,000 of those people are from Arizona. Photo courtesy of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Imagine that you woke up today and realized that one of your loved ones never came home. Your phone calls go unanswered as minutes turn into hours. You think to yourself, “This is not normal.” You try to retrace their habits and patterns but no answers come. Knowing deep down something is wrong, you call the police. A mixed response is likely. Most police agencies will take a report and enter your family member as missing, but often little else can be done. Why?

The fact is, adults have the right to go missing. They are able to walk away from their lives, jobs and families at will. Historically, without evidence of foul play, these cases were closed without further action. Yet, for the family of the loved one who never came home, the incident remained forever — an unending nightmare. Tragically, this is an experience many families in our society were and are forced to live.

In fact, 600,000 people are reported missing every year in the United States. Perhaps even worse, 40,000 unidentified bodies reside in public cemeteries, coroners, and medical examiner offices across the country.

Here in Arizona, we have 2,000 people entered as long term missing and nearly 1,500 unidentified human remains statewide. Gone with little clues, even though a large percentage is likely part of the 84,000 missing entered into the national database. These are astounding numbers reflective of a major problem in our society. No wonder that the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, NAMUS, an organization dedicated to the reconciliation of these issues, terms this “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”

Each number represents years of unanswered questions and wondering, with the potential for no closure. Moreover, these statistics are likely incredibly low for a variety of reasons, among them fear or mistrust of law enforcement. Many of the missing are from marginalized populations, and often these families feel failed by the system. Perhaps, they are right.

Since law enforcement’s main purpose is to deal with crime, and these missing person incidents are often perceived as non-criminal, little is done to investigate the cases while resources are dedicated to other areas. Despite surface appearances, some of these cases are actually criminal events, be it abduction or murder. Even if the case does not have those factors, we owe it to our society, to these families to do better. The good news is that we are actually making an effort.

For the last two years, a beautiful partnership has emerged to try to fill this void and correct the injustice that so many families have endured. This partnership of law enforcement, medical examiners, humanitarian groups like Humane Borders, NAMUS, Arizona State University, Foreign Consulates, and so many others have come together to change the narrative. Detective Stuart Somershoe, of the Phoenix Police Department, conceptualized and emulated an event held in Michigan and other states where at least one day a year we shine light on this significant issue.

Stuart formed a partnership with the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Realizing that they could not address the problem alone, the three invited many other partners to join.

In October of 2015, the first ‘Missing in Arizona’ day was held at the West Campus of Arizona State University in Glendale, Arizona, and it was so successful a second event was staged in 2016. Missing in Arizona 2015 and 2016 led to nearly 30 new reports as well as a chance to revisit some previously reported cases. Nineteen of those cases have been resolved with some of the missing persons found alive.

Missing in Arizona Day 2017 will be held on Oct. 21, 2017, at Arizona State University, West Campus. We have a head start. This year an expanded partnership involving medical examiners in Pima and Pinal Counties as well as Tucson Police, Pima County Sheriff’s Office, and Mesa Police, allowed us to take cases early. We are energized, prepared and ready to go. Now, we need those facing this crisis to come forward.

Our message to those with missing loved ones is that we will not permit barriers to interfere with your opportunity to successfully make a missing person’s report. We encourage all families, regardless of circumstances, who have a missing loved one with any connection to Arizona to come to Missing in Arizona Day.

The day will end with a candlelight vigil to honor those who have yet to come home. In doing this, we hope that we can change the missing person story and provide closure to many.

Detective Sgt. John Little, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Editors note: see front page story on Missing in Arizona Day

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