The Problem Of Unidentified Children -- How Bad Is it?

Annie Keller

Recent discoveries of the remains of unidentified children in Australia and Massachusetts have brought the mostly-unknown problem of unidentified children into the public eye. But just how bad is it?

First, the term "child" needs to be defined. For purposes of this analysis, "child" will mean any unidentified victim who was estimated to be 12 or younger when they died. (Unidentified adolescents are a very different group, with very different complicating issues.) It's difficult to say just how bad it is because it was only recently that a central database for unidentified victims -- the Namus database -- was set up and open to entries. Even after that, many cases still remain locked in file cabinets, all but forgotten. The Doe Network site, set up in 2001 for international missing persons and unidentified victims cold cases, has existed for longer, but even their database is limited to cases members are able to find on their own.

Likewise, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's "unidentified" category is a list of cases elected to be entered by law enforcement. But all can give an idea of the numbers. Out of over 10,000 cases of unidentified victims listed as open on the Namus site, 388 are listed in the "infant," "pre-adolescent," and "fetus" categories. NCMEC lists 302 unidentified victims, and 44 of them are estimated to be 12 or younger. The Doe Network's more extensive database lists 139 unidentified victims that are estimated to be 12 or younger. (While the other databases are limited to the U.S., the Doe Network lists them from all over the world, although only those who have been unidentified for more than two years.) That seems like only a few, especially compared to the lists of missing children in the U.S. Unfortunately, most of the unidentified children who are found are not listed as missing.

The lists are also heavily weighted towards older cases. In the past, dental records, fingerprints, or x-rays were the only ways to identify any unidentified person. The lack of central databases, until recently, are an additional concern. Today, most identifications of children come from DNA matches. The internet and social media also allow the circulation of the information about the unidentified victim more easily than before. Even years later, those photos can be found and lead to a crucial clue.

So, how bad is it in terms of unidentified children? Although they're a small amount of the number of unidentfied victims, they are an especially saddening one. Fortunately, modern technology makes it more likely that a case will be solved.

[Photos via NCMEC/CNN]