The Family Justice Center opened its doors Wednesday to help reconnect Chattanoogans with missing loved ones and friends who have been gone for more than a month as part of Missing Persons Day.
The public was invited to come work with the Chattanooga Police Department's Missing Persons unit and officials from the Tennessee Department of Health to provide information and DNA samples. That information then was entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System for free.
"This event is necessary to raise public awareness about missing persons cases," said Chattanooga police Sgt. Vinnie Holoman.
"There is also a new law, Help Find the Missing Act, which assists Tennessee law enforcement and medical examiners to bridge the gap between missing persons and unidentified persons in the hope of eventual identification," he said. "The law requires law enforcement to enter a person that has been missing for 30 days into a national database."
He said missing people reports come in on a daily basis and the department investigates 30-50 cases a month, most of which involve juvenile runaways.
Holoman also said sharing information about missing people among agencies is a vital part of solving these cases. In 2017, DNA from family members helped identify a body found in Sequatchie County after a cold missing person case in Chattanooga.
"Members of the community should be reminded that they do not have to wait 24 hours before they report a person missing," Holoman said.
"It is very important for reporting parties to give a good description of what the missing person was last wearing and to provide a recent photograph if they can. Communities should also be aware of people or events that appear to be out of place. Concerns of this matter should be reported to police."
Fran Wheatley, a death investigator for the office of the state chief medical examiner, said the state now has more than 100 unidentified decedents entered into the NamUs database, but events such as the one hosted Wednesday may allow some of those people to be named.
"Many other states have at least this many, some more. These decedents are someone's loved one and may be from Tennessee or another state or country," she said.
"These type of events allow families a venue to get their missing loved one into a national system and provide law enforcement and medical examiners with photos, X-rays, fingerprints and DNA to be entered into the Missing Person Database with NamUs."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.