New Texas law helping families looking for missing loved ones

Irina Baranova

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Alice Almendarez’s heart is heavy.

Alice Almendarez at a recent Missing in Harris County Day. (Courtesy: Alice Almendarez)

She’s prepared herself for days to face families who have dealt with similar loss.

“It’s hard to attend these events, but I do it because I know what it feels like to be in their shoes,” Almendarez explained. “My dad being missing, and you know, I felt… like he didn’t matter… he was just like vanished off the face of the earth.”

Almendarez now advocates for families with missing and unidentified loved ones.

At a recent Missing in Harris County Day in Houston, she helped families attending navigate their search for missing loved ones.

“They asked me…’What do I think the most important step is? What would I recommend for everyone,’ and I said it was NamUs, make sure your loved one is on NamUs,” Almendarez said. 

‘John and Joseph’s Law’

In Texas now, John and Joseph’s Law requires law enforcement agencies, justices of the peace and medical examiners in the state to use NamUs, a national database to solve missing and unidentified persons cases. 

The law went into effect last September. 

NamUs which is short for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System was created to help investigators and families solve cases by entering forensic details into the database. 

The law is named after Almendarez’s father, John, and Joseph Fritts, both from Houston, who were missing. Their families explained to KXAN investigators that NamUs helped them find closure. 

‘John and Joseph’s Law’ went into effect last September. (Courtesy: Alice Almendarez)

“They are part of the club that they never wanted to be a part of. And they are the only ones who know what the other families like them are, are going through,” explained State Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston. 

She worked closely with the Almendarez and Fritts families to get the law passed last session.

Hull joined both families at the Missing in Harris County Day and talked about the impact of the new law.  

“We have seen an uptick in law enforcement agencies and medical examiners, and people are reporting more in Texas,” Hull said. “So, it is working.” 

Cases entered spike after law goes into effect

In 2020, before the law passed, 106 NamUs missing persons cases were created across the state. Last September, after the law went into effect, the cases entered more than doubled to 221 in Texas. So far this year, 191 Texas cases have been created. 

For unidentified bodies in 2020, 58 cases were created in the database across the state. After the law passed, 33 cases were created. So far in 2022, 60 cases have been entered into NamUs.

Unclaimed persons cases didn’t see much of a change. Last year, 21 cases were created. So far this year, 24 cases have been entered into the database. 

Rep. Lacey Hull, (R) Houston, attending a recent Missing in Harris County Day in Houston. (Courtesy: Alice Almendarez)

“This is the step that was missing. This is what’s going to help so many families and it’s also going to help you know our local authorities like solve these cases faster,” Almendarez said. 

Hull has heard from those involved about some gaps in the reporting to NamUs of people who have passed but are not identified. She is looking to file additional legislation next session which starts in January. 

“Part of the gap in the data for these unidentified bodies that we’re looking at is for people who have passed away from natural causes, and so they would not be investigated by law enforcement. And so, there’s a gap of them—the unidentified remains being reported,” said Hull. 

Push for NamUs to go nationwide

NamUs is federally funded so there’s no cost to use the database.

It used to be headquartered in Fort Worth, but now it’s managed by a research institute in North Carolina.

Texas is now among 12 states to pass laws mandating the use of NamUs. 

Almendarez is now pushing for it to be nationwide. 

“It’s never going to work if we don’t have every law enforcement agency and medical examiner entering these cases into NamUs. It’s one uniform database, one central database that we can all use,” Almendarez explained. 

She has started contacting lawmakers and is hoping to get a national movement going this year.

“I don’t ever want anyone to have to go through that longer than they have to,” Almendarez said. “The people that are missing – the faces of the missing – the moms of the missing, the dads, they’re the drive behind that and the force behind me because I don’t want them to continue to live this nightmare.”

https://www.kxan.com/investigations/new-texas-law-helping-families-looking-for-missing-loved-ones/

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