Unclaimed Persons is a group of volunteer genealogical researchers who donate their time and skills to assist medical examiners, coroners and investigators to locate the next of kin of deceased individuals whose relatives have proven difficult to identify and trace.
The group is a spontaneous outgrowth of a show of the same name on RootsTelevision.com that features a genealogist helping coroners' offices. The show sparked a wave of volunteers to offer their services and resulted in the Unclaimed Persons community.
WHO ARE WE?
Janis Martin, Director
Arwen Newman, Director
Vreneli Doyle, Director
Cathy Blancato, Case Administrator
Robin Geiger, Case Administrator
Linda Herrick Swisher, Document Administrator
Megan Smolenyak, Founder
and hundreds of volunteer researchers from across the US and abroad
WHY AREN'T MEDICAL EXAMINERS, CORONERS AND INVESTIGATORS DOING THIS KIND OF RESEARCH?
They are, but we provide a useful supplement. Many are like other government agencies in that they're overworked, understaffed and handling large case loads. It also happens that the resources genealogists tap into are largely complementary to those used by many offices, so the Unclaimed Persons volunteers function as a supportive research team that can often ferret out information that might lead to the next of kin of the deceased.
Unclaimed Persons receives cases from medical examiners, coroners or investigators. The cases are assigned to case administrators who post each case, notify researchers and oversee the research effort. Researchers use their skills to find the decedents' next of kin (without making contact). When enough information is believed to have been found, the case administrator reviews the research, writes a report, and the report is submitted to the requesting organization. Case outcome and feedback information is later shared with the researchers once it is received from the sponsoring agency.
HOW MUCH INFORMATION ARE YOU GIVEN BY MEDICAL EXAMINERS, CORONERS AND INVESTIGATORS?
The information given varies from office to office and even from case to case. Certain information, such as cause of death, is usually not provided for legal reasons.
We have created a Request for Assistance Submission Form for medical examiners, coroners and investigators, although they are free to submit cases in other ways.
DO THE SUBMITTING AGENCIES TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THEY CONTACT THE NEXT OF KIN?
Usually, and we strongly encourage this. Most offices are kind enough to tell us the outcome of each case, although the amount of detail varies widely. We like to share what we can (without invading anyone's privacy) because it's very motivating to learn the results of one's research efforts. Having said that, we do not receive feedback on every single case, which is why some remain in pending for a long time or are eventually shifted to closed status.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO LEARN IF A CASE HAS BEEN RESOLVED?
Response time varies. Sometimes the submitting agencies are overwhelmed with current case loads and take a while to update the Unclaimed Persons team. On other occasions, feedback has come within hours.
While it is not common, cases can be returned for a second attempt. It may be that the contact information provided has not panned out, or that the relatives contacted have expressed no interest or have provided information for closer next of kin. This is why we stress the importance of being as certain as possible as we can of all details provided, and trying our best to submit information for several relatives and associates of the deceased to the submitting agency. This way, if one family member does not work out, another may.
WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE NEXT OF KIN IS CONTACTED?
There is no pat answer because it varies from county to county. In many cases, the deceased will have already been cremated and/or buried. In others, the next of kin will have the option to make those decisions. If the deceased has already been cremated/buried, the family members usually have the option to disinter, but there are some counties that scatter ashes at sea or use other such procedures that may prevent this. It should also be mentioned that many counties will make the appropriate arrangements if they are able to determine that the deceased was a Veteran, and have them interred in National Cemeteries.
DO YOU WORK WITH INTERNATIONAL CASES?
We currently handle only USA cases (although several of our cases have involved foreign-born individuals). We are not pursuing international cases at this time beyond the scope of what information is needed to work our current cases.
HOW DO I BECOME A MEMBER?
To join Unclaimed Persons, you must first Register. As part of the registration process, you will be asked to agree to the Forum Rules and Unclaimed Persons Member Agreement. You will also be asked to provide your Email address, your real first and last names, and other pertinent information that will become a part of your member profile.
WHAT INFORMATION DOES THE VOLUNTEER UNCLAIMED PERSONS TEAM NEED TO SUBMIT A CASE TO A MEDICAL EXAMINER, CORONER OR INVESTIGATOR?
The information needed is fairly intuitive:
1. names of relatives
2. contact information for relatives
3. nature of relationship
4. how the relationship was determined (e.g., listed as survivors in a mutual parent's obituary)
Not surprisingly, there is a strong preference for close relatives such as siblings, parents, spouses, and children, but more distant relatives (such as first cousins) are acceptable, provided we have made reasonable attempts to find those more closely related.
Since volunteers can't actually contact relatives to confirm addresses and phone numbers, it's a good idea to include all contact details that you find and mention which one you think might be most likely. Also, because we've become such a mobile society, it's best to include information for several relatives, and the various addresses that are associated with them. This gives the submitting agencies alternatives to work with in case the contact information for one person doesn't pan out. This also keeps the back-and-forth communication between the submitting agency and Unclaimed Persons to a minimum so we both can do our respective work.
Since we are a volunteer group, it may seem unreasonable to set such high standards, but we don't want a single family called in error due to our work. And we want to do our best to be an asset to submitting agencies, rather than adding to their already considerable responsibilities.
WHY SHOULDN'T I NOTIFY THE DECEDENT'S FAMILY?
We are helping the medical examiners, coroners and investigators in an unofficial capacity and it is their responsibility to notify the family. They have put their trust in us to assist them without overstepping our bounds, and leave to them what they have been trained to do.
WHY SHOULDN'T I NOTIFY THE CORONER DIRECTLY?
When the Unclaimed Persons show first aired, several coroners' offices (particularly those with online databases) were overwhelmed with submissions. While they welcome incoming information, it became difficult for some of them to manage this sudden influx in conjunction with their current case load. This is, in fact, part of what prompted the establishment of the Unclaimed Persons volunteer group.
We ask that you participate in the group and allow the case managers to notify medical examiners, coroners and investigators. This is a courtesy that prevents them from being inundated with communications containing identical or partial information from multiple sources.
DO I HAVE TO BE A GENEALOGIST TO PARTICIPATE?
No, but it helps! Medical examiners, coroners or investigators typically have access to information that others don't - for instance, some police-related databases. What seems to make genealogists useful is our knowledge of less obvious resources that can round out the family information already available to submitting agencies. But anyone with an interest is welcome to join. Our researchers typically have access to tools such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com, newspaper archives and other online subscriptions related to genealogical research. We also use many publicly available online databases.
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UNCLAIMED PERSONS MEMBER AGREEMENT
1) Members of Unclaimed Persons may never, for any reason, contact the decedent's next of kin or other persons who may have a potential relationship with or know of the deceased. This includes but is not limited to:
- Relatives of any degree
- Owners of family trees
Contacting relatives or associates of the decedent is the coroner’s and medical examiner’s responsibility. It is what they are trained to do and it is part of our agreement with these counties. This rule is in place for legal reasons and out of respect for the families we are assisting.
2) Members of Unclaimed Persons may never, for any reason, use any information from a case to pass on to third party organizations or post elsewhere on the Internet, including data from the coroner, members’ research or information discovered during the case. Sites include but are not limited to:
- Message boards
- Queries sites
- Guest books
- Family trees (including Private Member Trees on sites such as Ancestry.com and Geni.com, or add to a public tree at FamilySearch.org)
- Sites that compile information
- Genealogical sites
- Heir finder companies
- Forensic genealogy research
- Probate research groups
- Any Next-Of-Kin research
- Any other public communication site
In the enthusiasm of researching a case and hoping to find leads to NOK, it's tempting to nudge the process. But at Unclaimed Persons we are adamant that no information from the Case Files forum is posted anywhere off the forum. The consequences of NOK finding these postings (and it HAS happened), lead to unintended repercussions.
3) Members of Unclaimed Persons must use only resources that are publicly available on the Internet and may never order from, contact nor use the following types of resources without explicit permission from the case administrator and/or UP directors. Types of resources that require permission include but are not limited to:
- Vital records offices
- Court houses
- Veterans associations
- Social Security Administration
- Historical & genealogical societies
- Funeral homes
- Social, military, fraternal, religious organizations or associations
- Genealogical researchers who are not Unclaimed Persons members
- When in doubt, ask!
Examples of resources that are allowed:
- Online death record from FamilySearch
- Online court record from Hillsborough County Florida Web Public Search
- Online cemetery record from Find A Grave
Examples of resources that are NOT allowed without explicit permission:
- SS-5 from Social Security Administration
- Death record from vital records office
- Library access to physical media such as directories or newspapers
Examples of data that should NOT be posted without explicit permission:
- Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, bank account numbers, passwords or similar data from sources that are not freely available online or not available from commonly used genealogical sources, such as Ancestry.com, GenealogyBank.com or FamilySearch.org. When in doubt, ask the case admin!
It is very important that the case administrators know what is happening on each case at all times in order to:
- guide the direction of the case
- know what information is being requested
- prevent duplication of effort
- be sure any requests meet Unclaimed Persons guidelines
These rules are in place to protect the coroners, the decedent’s families, the individual researcher and Unclaimed Persons, both legally and ethically. The information discovered during these cases is often personal, sensitive and/or private. If something is unclear or you have information concerning a case that requires action, please contact the case administrator or one of the directors.
We know that you will want to assist us in keeping our commitment to the coroners, so please remember that WHAT HAPPENS ON THE FORUM STAYS ON THE FORUM. Period.
You are an important part of our research team and a welcome voice on the case topics. Thank you for being a part of the solution to bringing these people home!If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
Janis Martin, Arwen Newman, Vreneli Doyle - Directors, Unclaimed Persons