Mother makes son’s disappearance a federal case

WASHINGTON–When Janice Smolinski first told the police that her son was missing, they dismissed it as a voluntary runaway case.

After all, Billy Smolinski was a 31-year-old man living in Waterbury, a 6-foot-tall tow-truck driver who owned a small house and German shepherd. The local police didn’t think there was anything suspicious about his August 2004 disappearance.

For Smolinski, that was the first of many walls she hit in a years-long search for her son–an effort that has now stretched to Washington, as she and her husband, Bill Smolinski, push for federal legislation to beef up the way law enforcement officials handle missing-persons cases.

Last week, Rep. Chris Murphy, D-5th District, introduced a bill that would provide more funding for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System and would connect that database with the FBI’s national crime database. Connecticut Sens. Joseph Lieberman, an independent, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, have sponsored the same proposal in the Senate.

Smolinski and other victims’ rights advocates say it would go a long way toward fixing problems that stymie families and law enforcement alike as they try to solve missing persons cases, particularly those involving adults that don’t get much media or police attention. A similar bill sailed through the House last year on a voice vote.

But it’s been more controversial in the Senate, where Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, blocked the bill from coming to a vote last year. Coburn objected first and foremost to the bill’s price tag, which the Congressional Budget Office put at $46 million over four years, but which Coburn says could go higher. Among other things, Murphy’s initial version of the bill called for giving the Department of Justice an extra $2.4 million annually, over the next five years, to maintain public databases containing records relating to cases involving missing persons and unidentified human remains.

Coburn also raised concerns that the bill–by mandating that the FBI’s National Crime Center Information (NCIC) database share information with the National Missing Persons’ system–requires “the sharing of personally identifiable information between government databases.” He said that’s a particular concern because the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, also known as NamUs, is publicly accessible and can sometimes include inaccurate information.

The NamUs database has two separate pieces-one on missing persons and one on unidentified remains. Coburn noted that while the public can’t input information into unidentified remains section, they can do so in the missing persons part.

“There is no way to guarantee the consistency or accuracy of publicly entered information,” Coburn wrote in a letter last year to the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, outlining his reasons for blocking the bill. “The ability of NamUs and NCIC to share information via this legislation magnifies these concerns.”

Smolinski began pushing for the federal legislation several years ago, after suffering through a “nightmare plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead.” She described her family’s saga in testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee last January.

It began on Aug. 24, 2004, when they realized Billy had disappeared. After the mandatory three-day waiting period, they filed a missing persons report and expected the police to launch an “aggressive investigation.”

When the police classified the case a voluntary runaway, the Smolinskis hired a private investigator. And they discovered, through their own digging and Freedom of Information Act requests, that the police had filed inaccurate reports about Billy’s case and lost seven DNA samples, among other lapses.

Janice Smolinski believes her son was murdered, and she says the police’s inattention has left them in limbo and the case unsolved. “To this day, the only person who has been arrest in this case is me,” Smolinski told the House panel last winter. “When we tried to hang missing person flyers on telephone poles in Woodbridge, the police arrested me.” (The police did not bring charges.)

Waterbury’s police department strengthened its handling of missing persons’ cases in the wake of the Smolinski case. And state lawmakers in Hartford passed a law in 2007 calling for a more uniform approach to such cases, among other changes.

Now, Smolinski’s crusade in Washington has caught on with other families who have missing relatives and who say they, too, have run into one stumbling block after another.

There are an estimated 100,000 active missing persons cases nationally, according to the Justice Department. One key problem, experts and advocates say, is connecting information about missing persons with data on unidentified remains.

Murphy said that although law enforcement officials find more than 4,000 unidentified human remains every year, medical examiners and coroners often don’t have the resources to enter all the information about those bodies into the national database. He pointed to a survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in which 80 percent of coroners’ offices said they rarely or never used the national unidentified remains database. In addition, law enforcement officials don’t always know about that resource, or fail use it even if they do.

Murphy also said there’s a “myriad of unconnected federal, state, local and nonprofit databases,” so a missing-person report may be filed in one system and an unidentified remains report entered into another, with no ability to cross-check for connections.

He said his bill addresses these problems by strengthening NamUs, allowing law enforcement to connect it with the FBI’s national crime information database, and providing enhanced funding for the Justice Department to maintain NamUs as the centralized system for all such cases.

The bill would also provide competitive grants to coroners, medical examiners, and law enforcement agencies to foster more and better reporting of missing persons and unidentified remains cases. The funds could also be used for training police and others on how to use the databases and how to improve their handling of missing persons’ cases.

Kristina Rose, deputy director at the federal Office of Justice Programs, testified in favor of the legislation last year. She said the proposal would “encourage and facilitate the sharing of information from disparate systems critical to the resolution of missing persons and unidentified decedent cases.”

Some victims’ advocates have championed the legislation and last year urged Coburn to drop his “hold” on the bill, a procedural measure used to block a vote.

“It will close a lot of cases–a lot of long-term missing child cases–and that provides closure for families,” said Carolyn Atwell-Davis director of legislative affairs for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It’s another tool that law enforcement can have and that’s important.”

But Coburn has said that Congress needs to hold serious hearings into the current system, to make sure this bill doesn’t create duplicative programs and waste federal dollars.

“While there’s no question that law enforcement should endeavor to quickly locate missing persons and return them to their families, the federal government is already making efforts to facilitate this process,” he said in his letter. He said Murphy’s bill, “while well-intentioned,” may add a new layer of waste and excessive spending to Washington’s federal books.

Kristen Bossi, a spokeswoman for Murphy, said his office changed the proposal this year to address some of Coburn’s concerns. They shaved the bill’s $46 million price tag by about $10 million, she said, although the Congressional Budget Office has yet to provide an official cost estimate. And they changed the grant program from one that involves only federal funding to one that requires local matching dollars. In addition, they bill now includes a provision allowing law enforcement officials to override inaccurate information in the system.

A spokesman for Coburn did not respond to questions about the new version of the bill, so it’s unclear whether he will let it go through this time around. In addition, since Republicans control the House, the legislation may run into new hurdles in that chamber.

Smolinski says the legislative battle won’t impact her son’s case, which is now 6 1/2 years old. But she said she hopes the changes can make a difference for other families who have missing relatives.

“If it can happen to my son, it could happen to anyone,” she said. “I’m very hopeful that it will go through this time.”