The largest lab that tests DNA for missing people and unidentified dead no longer will accept DNA samples from law enforcement agencies and crime laboratories across the country because of a nearly $1 million cut to its funding.
Without the funding, which came through a federal grant, the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification cannot afford to process DNA samples that come from agencies outside Texas. The lab estimates that it received more than 1,200 out-of-state samples last year, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of its work.
The lab analyzes samples from criminal investigations to try to identify human remains and find those who have gone missing. To date, it has made connections with family DNA samples to more than 2,200 unidentified cases. The lab, along with Kentucky authorities, helped identify Sonja Kaye Blair-Adams, a woman who had been killed and discovered outside Harlan, Kentucky, and remained unidentified for 47 years. Until last month, the lab provided this service free of charge through a grant from the National Institute of Justice.
“The real consequence isn’t directed to us; it’s directed to the community,” said Bruce Budowle, a professor at the University of North Texas and the lab’s director. “We won’t be helping people solve cases, identify victims, have interdiction on criminal acts. That’s a huge economic impact and even greater humanitarian or social impact.”
Instead, the National Institute of Justice, an agency under the U.S. Department of Justice, will increase funding to process rape kits. Many crime labs across the country have significant backlogs of the kits.
“It’s a very important issue, and you can fully understand why sexual assaults are given such a high priority, because they are such a heinous crime,” Budowle said. “However, I wouldn’t dismiss the human remains one because many of these people have been through the same, if not worse, abuses.”
Since 2008, the National Institute of Justice has awarded more than $23 million toward helping universities, medical examiners, law enforcement agencies and private laboratories analyze DNA samples for the purposes of identifying the missing and unidentified dead. The University of North Texas center has received nearly $13 million since 2008.
The federal institute says it will continue to fund the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a national repository for information about missing people and unidentified dead. But NamUs relies on the university’s work: The results of its analyses feed into the database.
Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting built a tool, The Lost & The Found, using NamUs data that allows for side-by-side searching of databases for missing persons and unidentified remains. Since the tool’s launch in September 2015, users have submitted more than 675 potential matches.
Some agencies have asked Budowle to create a fee-for-service model, but he said the lab isn’t set up to operate that way, and it would leave out agencies that can’t afford DNA analysis. Budowle said the cost of analysis varies depending on the case, but usually starts at $2,000 to $3,000.
“A lot of these agencies, they don’t have a lot of money for these kinds of things, especially the small police departments or sheriff’s (departments), where there are a few people in a small area,” Budowle said. “One case can burn out their entire budget.”
The National Institute of Justice said there are other sources of federal funding for law enforcement agencies for DNA testing in criminal investigations that involve missing and unidentified persons.
Dental records and fingerprints are other methods used to identify human remains, but they aren’t always available, especially for cases in which bodies have been found in a decomposed state or only partial remains were found. DNA may also link cases that have been unsolved for many years with distant relatives.
Budowle does not know whether the grant might be renewed in the future, but said short-term funding cuts have consequences on the types of DNA testing his lab can offer.
Emmanuel Martinez can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @eman_thedataman.