Expert Q&A: George W. Adams, M.A.

Author of Utilizing Forensic Technologies for Unidentified Human Remains: Death Investigation Resources, Strategies, and Disconnects

George Adams is the former national director of operations and director of finance for the National Missing and Unidentified Person’s System (NamUs), a national centralized repository and resource center for missing persons and unidentified decedent records. NamUs currently, as of 2015, operates under The Forensic Services Unit of the University of North Texas: Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI). Adams served as the law enforcement representative on the NamUs Advisory Group Panel during the development stage of NamUs.

Evidence Technology Magazine recently asked Adams a few questions about death investigation resources, the focus of his forthcoming book, Utilizing Forensic Technologies for Unidentified Human Remains.

To read an excerpt from the book, go to this issue's Digital Edition.

EVIDENCE TECHNOLOGY: From your time with NamUs, what conflict(s) or divide did you observe between families of missing persons and law enforcement?

GEORGE W. ADAMS: My work with families and agencies began well before NamUs when I began as the project coordinator with the Missing Persons Program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. This was in February 2005, just after the first CODIS cold DNA hit: the identification of Ms. Donna Williamson. From 2005 through today, the same divides and conflicts exist between law enforcement and families. Those divides, which I often referred to as an abyss, can be condensed down to three things: lack of understanding, lack of trust, and poor communication. I wrote Utilizing Forensic Technologies for Unidentified Human Remains specifically to address this abyss and bring together families and law enforcement. After all, they are just on different sides of the same coin and subject to the same stresses.

ETM: What sort of attitudes do families of victims have regarding law enforcement?

ADAMS: When a person goes missing the world comes apart for family and friends; nothing can assuage that unbelievable stress except locating the missing person. Law enforcement is the first resource—and, really, the only resource—that can bring some measure of resolution. In training, I present the following generalization, relative to family attitudes toward law enforcement as time goes on in a missing persons case: in the initial 30 days of a case, law enforcement is the best there is; after 60 days without resolution, law enforcement becomes a concern to the family; after 90 days, law enforcement is deemed the most incompetent and uncaring entity there is. This is a reflection of the circumstances and our human disposition when faced with frustrating situations—we must find someone to blame. As the case goes on, law enforcement may respond to the criticism by becoming less open and morphing into a defensive posture. Again, these circumstances are not meant to be a criticism of either families or law enforcement, rather a reflection of human behavior under stress. Each needs to see that both are really like two sides of the same coin—just different sides.

ETM: What steps can be taken to improve those issues?

ADAMS: First, we need open, transparent, and authentic communications between families, NGOs, and investigators, and to jointly develop a common investigative strategy.

Second, we need improved educational resources. Currently, there are no local educational resources available for families or investigators from their normal providers. For example: In Texas, there are 2,645 law enforcement agencies, 106 training academies, 180 contract training providers, and 5 alternative academic providers—all of which could provide training courses to communities. There are an untold number of NGOs (non-government organizations) that have not been prepared to sponsor training on missing and unidentified persons investigations for families and investigators.

Third, we must focus on relationship management concepts and coordinating local resources that are currently in place and locally funded to provide training and social services support for which agencies are not staffed or funded to deliver.

ETM: How has the investigation of missing persons and unidentified remains changed in recent years?

ADAMS: It may seem to some that not much has improved, and possibly turned a little worse. Current funding amounts for NamUs have exceeded requirements in the first years (2011-2014) of operational management of NamUs so much that annual no-cost grant extensions had to be awarded to keep from returning a significant amount of unused funds during the contract period. As a result of a lack of training and outreach through proper channels, some noticeable changes have taken place: First, the influx of new UHR cases has been on the decline. Second, the number of registered NamUs Public Users have declined—approximately 25% in the MP database and 7% in the UP database in 2014. Third, state clearinghouses have not jumped on board with NamUs, but have extended their work with redesigned websites and outreach and multiple new state statutes from legislatures. For most of the period from 2011 to 2014, there were only ten registered clearinghouse users in NamUs. Finally, registered law enforcement NamUs users (MP and UP) have basically remained stagnant throughout 2014.

These stagnant and declining numbers hurt me so deeply that I could not stand by and do nothing for such a valuable asset as NamUs, which has the ability to support NGOs, and state missing person clearinghouses with the public-facing side for unidentified decedents. My new book as written to resolve these areas of dissonance.

ETM: What are three primary points that law enforcement should learn about the various resources available for missing persons / unidentified remains investigation?

ADAMS: First, every case is unique, requiring specific strategies and multiple (not duplicative) modalities for identification. Second, all investigative activities should concentrate on local resources and move outward from local to national, while guarding the privacy and security of the voluntarily missing who may be seeking an exit from intimate partner violence. And the third point is that all forensic reports should be viewed as opinions—not fact—which means there is a necessity to have multiple confirming resources from different established local sources.

ETM: What technology trends do you see shaping death investigation in the next five years?

ADAMS: There is one truth about technology: “Today’s niche technology is tomorrow’s antique.” We just saw the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) replaced by Next Generation Identification (NGI) in September 2014, with multiple biometrics linked to fingerprints. Within the next five years, we will see the changing of the guard from traditional legacy DNA technology (capillary electrophoresis) to Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technology; implementation of Rapid DNA technology; and the use of stable isotope analysis to complement NGS.

ETM: How can NGI help with identification?

ADAMS: In the field of human identification we are finding it necessary to confirm identification via multiple biometric markers. By biometrics, I am referring to machine-driven modalities of identification, free of human errors and opinions. NGI is a powerful and comprehensive technology that can identify individuals and fight identify theft, and I believe it will provide a dynamic and cost-effective means to assist death investigators with unidentified human remains.

ETM: And how will NGS technology help?

ADAMS: Currently, many medical examiners and coroners have unresolved cases when remains do not yield a DNA profile or only a partial DNA profile, using legacy DNA technology. NGS has been reported to be significantly more successful in obtaining viable profiles from degraded remains. NGS is reported to be able to provide (1) insight into the ethnicity of remains; (2) ability to distinguish between twins; and (3) more opportunity to identify cases involving incest. The National Institute of Justice recently awarded $800,000 to Battelle and several partners to help move NGS into mainstream law enforcement.

ETM: What potential do you see with Rapid DNA where death investigation is concerned?

ADAMS: Look for new studies to come out that explore the use of Rapid DNA on blood from crime scenes. However, its greatest power may actually center on death investigations for medical examiners, coroners, and funeral directors. In very short order, personnel can be trained to use Rapid DNA equipment and produce an allele report in less than 90 minutes. In fact, I was trained on Rapid DNA equipment and ran my own sample—which produced a concordant profile with a CODIS-eligible legacy DNA-generated profile, in under two hours—on the convention exhibit floor of the International Chiefs of Police Conference in San Diego. The power of Rapid DNA for medical examiners and coroners is to have the equipment in hand to confirm or eliminate a deceased individual in less than 90 minutes while the deceased’s family is waiting in the conference room. Funeral directors will now have positive confirmation that the body they are about to cremate is the person claimed.

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