'Billy's Law' gets new push

Act would aid families of missing persons

By:  Paul Singley
Republican American

Janice Smolinski has worked every day for 11 years to find her missing son.

For the fourth time, her local senator has joined an effort to propose "Billy's Law," or Help Find the Missing Act, to streamline the missing persons' reporting process and create more accessible and comprehensive databases.

"All these years later, Janice Smolinski is still at it, doing anything she can to find out what happened to her son," said Democratic Sen. Christopher Murphy, who spoke on the Senate floor Monday in favor of the bill. "Her persistence has certainly rubbed off on me."

Billy Smolinski, namesake of the bill, disappeared from his home on Holly Street in Waterbury in August 2004 at age 31. He hasn't been seen since, despite efforts from law enforcement and missing person's advocates nationwide.

Janice Smolinski of Cheshire believes her son was murdered, and she won't stop searching until she solves this mystery. She is counting on Murphy and other lawmakers to make life easier for her and others searching for loved ones.

The proposed law would secure $2.4 million for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, a database that authorities and families of missing people could access to try to connect clues from cases across the country. It enables loved ones of missing people to search for a match and add information to the case profile that only they might know. The proposal would also streamline the reporting process for law enforcement and medical examiners by connecting NamUs to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, another electronic database.

Currently, families can get information from the NamUs, which is run by the U.S. Department of Justice. But they cannot get information from the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC.

Under "Billy's Law," the general public would not be able to access NCIC since law enforcement doesn't want too much information made available primarily to avoid interference with an ongoing investigation. The change under the law will be that information that is now only required to be uploaded to NCIC will also be uploaded to NAMUS, portions of which are publicly accessible.

"That is something that now only happens voluntarily and sporadically," Murphy said. "NamUs allows certain information to be available only to law enforcement, while making other important information public."

The bill would also establish an incentive grants program with about $8 million that will go toward helping coroners, medical examiners and law enforcement agencies report on missing people and unidentified remains. And it would require the U.S. Department of Justice to issue a report on best practice standards and procedures.

Murphy said NamUs and NCIC currently face many problems.

Most importantly, he said, many coroners and law enforcement officers remain unaware of the various databases and tools that exist, so the bill requires the Department of Justice to report to state, local and tribal law enforcement, as well as medical examiners and coroners on best practices in terms of standards and protocols for dealing with the collecting, reporting and analyzing of identifying information for missing persons and adults.

The competitive grants would provide states, law enforcement and coroners the resources and guidance they need to best do their part in helping find missing people.

"The program also incentivizes local law enforcement and medical examiners to input data on unidentified remains of missing people into NamUs, which in the absence of additional funding they are reluctant to undertake," Murphy said.

CURRENTLY, THERE ARE an estimated 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains across the country, many of which Murphy and other supporters of the bill say have not been identified because of gaps in U.S. missing persons systems.

The biggest gap is that information is not populating to all databases. Additionally, law enforcement agencies may be hesitant to devote resources to missing adult cases, given competing priorities, especially since adults have the legal right to disappear in most cases and may do so to seek protection from an abuser and other related reasons, Murphy said.

"Guidance is needed from the federal level on how to better address these cases," he said.

Murphy introduced "Billy's Law" in 2009 when he was a congressman serving Connecticut's 5th District. After speaking with Janice Smolinski, Murphy said he realized there are tens of thousands of people like her who face systematic challenges while trying to find their missing loved ones.

The bill passed the House in 2009 but not the Senate, and faced problems gaining bipartisan support in future years. Murphy said he is confident about his proposal's chances this time around because it is the first that has Republican and Democratic support in both the House and Senate.

The average lifespan from an idea to getting legislation passed is normally 10 years in Washington, he said, adding that "things just don't move as fast as they do in state legislatures."

Murphy said he's determined to make the bill a reality.

"These families shouldn't be victimized twice — once by the disappearance of their family member and again by a broken missing persons system," he said.

Janice Smolinski has become a surrogate author on the bill, according to Murphy's office. She is in constant communication with the senator's staff, and vice versa, on the status of the proposal and ways in which she can help. Smolinski has used her network of missing person's advocates nationwide to garner support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle nationwide, Murphy said.

There hasn't been a day that has gone by in 11 years that Janice Smolinski hasn't done something to try to find Billy and bring him home, she said.

"He is my son," she said. "I cannot turn my back on him."