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F.A.Q.s

Unclaimed Persons - General
Unclaimed Persons - Volunteering
Unclaimed Persons - Case Procedures

FAQs -- GENERAL

Read the Ancestry January/February 2009 article:
Found! Unclaimed Persons (PDF file PDF)

WHAT IS UNCLAIMED PERSONS?
Unclaimed Persons is a group of volunteer genealogists who donate their time and research 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 that now numbers more than 350 volunteers.

WHO ARE WE?
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, Founder
Dee Akard Welborn, Retired Case Administrator
Terry Elliott, Retired Case Administrator
Skip Murray, Case Manager
Keri Maurus-Carroll, Case Manager
Marcia Bignall, Administrator-at-large
Donna Martin-Netherton, Administrator-at-large
Ana Oquendo-Pabón, M.D., Case Administrator
Thomas MacEntee, Case Administrator
Audrey Speelman, Case Administrator
Kathy Then, Case Administrator
Janis Martin, Case Administrator
Robert Baca, Retired Case Administrator

Please visit our Facebook Community to 'meet' more of the Unclaimed Persons team.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN UNCLAIMEDPERSONS.COM AND UNCLAIMEDPERSONS.ORG?
UnclaimedPersons.com is the State of California Unclaimed Persons Database Search, created and maintained by the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner Division. UnclaimedPersons.org is a group of volunteers who work to assist San Bernardino and other counties across the country with such cases. While the volunteer group greatly admires and was partially inspired by San Bernardino's database, there is no formal relationship between the two entities.

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.

HOW DOES UNCLAIMED PERSONS WORK?
Unclaimed Persons receives cases from medical examiners, coroners or investigators. The cases are given to case managers, who assign individual cases to case administrators. Administrators post each case, notify researchers and oversee the research effort. Researchers use their sleuthing skills to find all the information they can on the decedents' families without making any contact. When enough information is believed to have been found, the case administrator sends the findings to a case manager, who reviews the research, writes a report, and submits it to the requesting organization. Case outcome and feedback information is later shared with the researchers once it is received from the sponsoring agency.

HOW DOES UNCLAIMED PERSONS WORK

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.

In a "help us help you" attempt, 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 status 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 relative(s) contacted has refused to cooperate. 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 MEDICAL EXAMINERS, CORONERS AND INVESTIGATORS DO DNA TESTING ON THE DECEDENTS?
This is specific to each county; some do and some don't. Even those that do wouldn't necessarily realize that genealogists would have any clue how to use DNA for identification purposes. Also, most probably rely primarily or exclusively on CODIS testing rather than the Y-DNA and mtDNA tests that genealogists are more accustomed to working with. To date, we only know of one of our cases having involved DNA testing, but that could change in the future.

DO YOU WORK WITH INTERNATIONAL CASES?
At this point, we're dealing primarily with U.S.-based cases (although several of our cases have involved foreign-born individuals), but that's mainly because those are the ones who have contacted us so far. Moving forward, we're more than open to working international cases.

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FAQs -- VOLUNTEERING

HOW DO I BECOME A MEMBER?
Click here or any of the Unclaimed Persons Facebook group links on this site. If you're not already registered with Facebook, you'll need to (it's free). Then we suggest that you explore the photo area where cases are posted, the wall where comments are made, and especially the case-specific discussion boards. Please also review the guidelines before participating in an actual case.

WHAT ARE THE UNCLAIMED PERSONS CASE GUIDELINES?
You'll find them here.

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-forthing 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.

WHERE DO I POST TO THE CASES?
Each case is numbered and has its own discussion board in the Unclaimed Persons group on Facebook. Please post your findings here so that others may build on your discoveries and move the case forward. If, however, you have private information about living persons, such as likely next of kin, please not post this. Rather, send it directly and privately to the Case Administrator (just look for the person who initially posted the case, click on their name above their post, and then click on "send message").

DO YOU 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. Those who are new to such research may wish to join and monitor some cases to get a better feel for our techniques and favorite resources before actually participating.

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FAQs -- CASE PROCEDURES

SHOULD I POST SOMETHING EVEN IF I DON'T THINK IT'S IMPORTANT?
Sometimes a clue that doesn't initially seem important will be the one that someone else will pick up and run with. This is one of the reasons this Unclaimed Persons group was created and is perhaps one of its greatest strengths. So yes, post away!

WHY DO WE HAVE TO CODE THE NAMES AND PERSONAL INFORMATION OF THE LIVING?
In an effort to protect the privacy of living individuals, we stress coding the names and personal information. If you need that information to continue your research, simply contact that person privately by clicking on their name above their post, then clicking on "send message."

HOW DOES A CASE ADMINISTRATOR KNOW WHAT THE CODED WORDS SAY?
When posting coded information, the researcher should send the uncoded version to the Case Administrator (the person who initially posted the case and sent out the "call"). If that step is overlooked, and the Administrator thinks it is important, they will ask for the information to be sent to them.

CAN WE E-MAIL THE CASE ADMINISTRATORS?
The case administrators and case managers are always happy to answer questions. If you have any questions that don't pertain to a specific case, please ask them "off board" so that unrelated chatter is kept to a minimum. This makes it easier for researchers to follow the flow of the case.

HOW CAN I FIND OUT THE STATUS OF THE CASES?
There are two ways to find the status of the cases. One is to go to the "Case Status Update" board; the other is to go to the photo section where you will find the cases as images, all stamped with their status (e.g., pending, solved, awaiting SS application, etc.).

WHAT DOES "PENDING" MEAN?
Pending means that a report for a researched case has been sent to the submitting agency and we are waiting for them to contact family members. If the family is located, the case if shifted into "Solved" status. If the family is not found with the information that we have provided, then the case is returned to us, and we try another path.

WHY DON'T YOU CREATE MORE THAN ONE PHOTO ALBUM TO KEEP THE ACTIVE, PENDING, AWAITING SS APPS, AND SOLVED CASES SEPARATE?
Though a good idea, the group account in Facebook unfortunately doesn't allow us to create more than one photo album. This is why we stamp the cases with their status in the photo section.

WHO NOTIFIES THE DECEDENT'S FAMILY?
The medical examiner, coroner or investigator who submitted the case notifies the decedent's family. Unclaimed Persons volunteers never make contact with family members.

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.

WHAT DOES "WAITING FOR SS APP" MEAN?
It means that we have ordered a Social Security application for the deceased and are waiting for the document to be received (typically, 6-10 weeks). We occasionally do this for cases that prove challenging. It is up to volunteers whether they choose to continue to "work" the case while we are waiting for the application.

WHY DO YOU ORDER SOCIAL SECURITY APPLICATIONS?
We do this on occasion for cases that are proving stubborn. Social Security applications usually include name of parents, information that's often useful in moving a case forward. In most cases, though, the submitting agency has already supplied this information or we are able to locate family members without it.

DO MEDICAL EXAMINERS, CORONERS AND INVESTIGATORS CHECK WITH THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION AND ASK FOR NAMES OF THE PARENTS?
This varies from county to county. In some cases when parents' names have not been provided and our volunteers have exhausted the usual resources, we will request the Social Security application of the deceased to try to learn the parents' names. In other cases, we will work to coordinate with the submitting agency to make this request.

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More than 400 cases solved since June 2008