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300 cases solved

More and more Americans live a rootless existence… and die alone, far from home, from kith and kin. Their identities are known, but the links that tied them to parents, children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, were broken by time and circumstance.

They are America’s unclaimed persons… and they are being brought home by a dedicated team of volunteer researchers operating under the motto: “every life is worth remembering.”

And, this week, the group — which has only been in existence for four years — reached two amazing milestones: it solved its 300th case via online teamwork; and it began work on the 500th case in which its help has been sought by government agencies to identify and locate the next of kin.

Unclaimed Persons, which maintains a website at, was founded by Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak in June 2008 after the premiere episode of a Rootsweb television program by the same name. The episode featured her work with two coroners’ offices to locate the next of kin of two men and, she said in an Ancestry Magazine article in 2009, she simply wasn’t prepared for what happened after it aired.

She was literally inundated with offers from genealogists and family historians who wanted to help.

Running first via its Facebook page and then from the website as well, the volunteer group Megan put together has swelled to more than 400 volunteers. More than 400 cases overall have been cracked, with 300 of those — as of this week — coming from the group’s cooperative online teamwork.

Cases are submitted to the group by government agencies, particularly coroners’ offices, from around the country that are struggling under burgeoning caseloads with staff and budget cuts. Unclaimed Persons administrators post the information to the volunteers, who then start looking for contact information on the next of kin, using resources known to the genealogical community that supplement the sources of the government agencies.

The volunteers never contact the next of kin themselves; that’s the job of the government agency that has the case. And they’re very cautious with information about all living people, using coded references to protect the privacy of the families.

The results have been pretty amazing. One California coroner’s investigator began as a skeptic, and ended up thinking the group’s work was “not only a helpful supplement to our own efforts, but essential!” The Hillsborough County, Florida, Medical Examiner’s office added referring cases with no known next of kin to Unclaimed Persons to its investigative checklist.

As a result, 300 families are no longer wondering what happened to a parent, a child, a sibling, or other relative. And many of the 300 unclaimed persons whose kin have been found made their way home, bringing closure to their families.

A case in point: a man had lived under a highway bridge in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, for more than 10 years before his death. The only evidence of his identity came from a 1970s-era draft card. After the case was posted to Unclaimed Persons, 13 volunteers from 10 different states pooled their efforts online and — within two days, using only online public resources — they’d located several of the man’s siblings and sent a report to the investigator in charge of the case.

The investigator ended up calling the team “angels” and added: “While it was difficult to call the family, there is peace they have answers about their brother they haven’t seen in years.”

Current directors are Janis Martin of Minnesota, Arwen Newman of Arizona and Linda Driver of California, and there’s always room for more volunteers. The website has information for volunteers, guidelines for volunteer cases, and frequently asked questions.

If you’re interested, you can also get information about volunteering for Unclaimed Persons from its

If you’re with a government agency and want more information about submitting cases to Unclaimed Persons, there’s a page for Medical Examiners, Coroners and Investigators, and a form for submitting a case on the website too.

What a great way for genealogists to give back to their communities… and with so many veterans being among the unclaimed, what a great idea for Veterans’ Day this Sunday…

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