Reina Morales-Rojas received a new cellphone for her birthday in October, but still, she held onto the original. Both were always on; both were always charged. In case of a family emergency, the mother of two wanted to be easily reached.
But on Thanksgiving weekend, both phones went dark. Her sister in El Salvador had a bad feeling. Her boyfriend and landlord in East Boston waited and waited, but the 41-year-old never returned from a short trip to Somerville. Loved ones — from East Boston to Central America — bombarded Boston police with calls.
Two months passed with no sign of Morales-Rojas. It wasn’t until Jan. 12 that Boston police alerted the public and posted her photo in a press release. A local Latino organization had flooded social media with pictures of the missing Salvadoran immigrant.
It took eight more days before Morales-Rojas appeared in NamUs — the national database of missing persons. That action wasn’t prompted by police; a concerned citizen had entered her name into the system after stumbling upon the case during a Google search.
By then, 53 days had passed since Morales-Rojas’s daughters had seen their mother. She remains missing. No one has a clue to her whereabouts, though police say they are pursuing leads.
This is the way it often goes for people reported missing in Massachusetts. It isn’t that cases fall through cracks in the system; it’s that there’s no system at all. The pursuit of these cases hinges almost entirely on the discretion — and commitment level — of local police departments. Such efforts vary wildly.
The only federal database accessible to the public, NamUs, is completely unreliable and includes fewer than 10 percent of the state’s missing persons at any given time, a Globe investigation found. There is no standard protocol for handling these reports and coordination across state lines is spotty at best. Getting someone’s name on the list, much less provoking law enforcement action, often boils down to a few simple things: the police department on the case, the aggressiveness of advocates, and the social standing of the missing person.
“We don’t often know about a case unless there’s someone savvy screaming from their lungs: Where’s my kid? Where’s my sister? Or where’s my person?” said Heather Bish, whose 16-year-old sister, Molly, disappeared during the summer of 2000, prompting her to become a leading advocate for reforms to the state’s porous, ad-hoc missing persons system.
In recent weeks, the cases of Ana Walshe and Brittany Tee — both white women from affluent suburbs — have rocketed across social media, drawn intense press coverage, and taxed police resources. Almost immediately, Massachusetts State Police joined local law enforcement in those searches. Meanwhile, Morales-Rojas, who went missing a month and a half earlier, garnered not a glance.
It is as if Morales-Rojas were invisible. And the long delay in her case epitomizes the deep flaws in the state’s missing persons process.
For months, her family in El Salvador had pestered the police in East Boston. Her sister, Alicia Morales, said investigators were vague and dismissive.
“Call me back when you hear from Reina,” Morales recalled one detective told her. She found the response baffling.
She believes that if not for the persistent advocacy of Latinos Unidos en Massachusetts, or LUMA, the Boston Police Department might never have taken Morales-Rojas’s case seriously. The nonprofit, Everett-based group, alerted to her plight by a reporter at Telemundo, wrote two letters to the Boston Police Department. The first, dated Jan. 17, went unanswered. So the group’s executive director, Lucy Pineda, penned another.
“It is of grave concern to our community that the authorities have done little to move forward with the investigation of this case until now and without pressure from organizations such as ours,” she wrote on Jan. 21.
Next, she sent the message to news stations and Facebook groups. Then, she arranged a vigil outside the police station on Paris Street.
The police eventually responded: They’d love to meet, they said. LUMA requested free legal assistance from Lawyers for Civil Rights. But when Pineda arrived at the station on Jan. 25 alongside the pro-bono lawyers, the officers threatened to cancel the meeting, the attorneys wrote in a statement to the Globe. Pineda had no choice but to head into the station without counsel.
Mariellen Burns, the Boston Police Department’s chief of communications, acknowledged that the agency could have made Morales-Rojas’s disappearance public earlier.
“In our focused efforts to identify her whereabouts our investigative team regrettably did not share her information publicly until January 12th,” she wrote in a statement to the Globe. But she added that the department “continues to utilize all investigative means to locate Ms. Morales Rojas and every lead investigators have received thus far has been followed up on.”
Burns did not elaborate further on the investigative efforts of the police.
Alicia Morales, who said she used to speak with her sister multiple times a day, told the Globe she wasn’t interviewed at length by police until Jan. 14. And the Massachusetts State Police — who are regularly called into missing person cases — as well as police in Somerville, her last known location, did not join the search until late January.
“With other cases, those who do not involve immigrants from El Salvador, it is immediate. They have helicopters, they have drones, they have state troopers. But with Reina, they forgot that she is a human being,” Pineda said.
When a person goes missing in Massachusetts, a family member or friend typically reports the matter to local police. In the state government’s one-page “Missing Person Protocol,” officials encourage citizens to “communicate risks to police so that urgency is understood.” But officials also acknowledge that “advocacy may be required for police action.” The concerned person can also “ask about using local and state police social media pages to quickly spread the word,” though the police have no obligation to do so.
If the person is under 21, federal law dictates that police immediately enter the person’s information into the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, an electronic clearinghouse overseen by the FBI. In Massachusetts, police also regularly enter cases of missing adults into this system, according to records obtained by the Globe.
Still, that data is only accessible to law enforcement. The NCIC database and the NamUs database aren’t synced. The Globe obtained the internal NCIC list through a public record request. As of Feb. 1, that database cites 1,939 missing persons from Massachusetts, each case considered active and open. Meanwhile, NamUs holds just 180.
Several forensic and law enforcement experts told the Globe that missing person cases benefit from public attention, but the status quo allows for broad disparities in how law enforcement pursues investigations.
“There needs to be a unified policy across the country for how missing person cases are handled. As it is now, every jurisdiction operates in a manner in which they feel like they want to operate, which allows for no accountability and a lot of bias,” said Derrica Wilson, founder of the national organization Black and Missing.
In 2017, Governor Charlie Baker appointed a task force to review the state’s handling of missing person cases. The group — a mix of law enforcement, forensic anthropologists, and volunteers, like Bish — found that the 149 Massachusetts listings in the NamUs database at the time accounted for just 6 percent of the state’s active missing person cases.
NamUs was created by the federal government in 2007 to serve as a repository of all missing persons reports from across the country. But it hasn’t exactly caught on. Only 13 states mandate police enter missing or unidentified persons into the system.
Massachusetts isn’t one of them. Despite that, the state’s webpage on missing persons includes links to NamUs, calling it an “active database” that is “updated daily” by “law enforcement agencies and medical examiner’s offices” with “hopes a missing person can be reunited with his/her family.”
But that’s not so. Because participation in NamUs is voluntary in Massachusetts, police rarely update it.
A Globe review found that an average case in the state’s NamUs log is nearly 18 years old. Meanwhile, the average case in NCIC is just over one year old. Contemporary cases, including highly publicized ones such as that of Cohasset’s Ana Walshe, are largely absent from NamUS. Just one person listed in that database disappeared within the last month, while NCIC recorded 187. This disparity not only makes NamUs an unreliable tool, but more of a historical document than a useful public service.
To test NamUs, a Globe reporter on Wednesday entered Walshe’s name into the system, citing media reports and police statements that declared the woman missing. The entry was sent to the NamUs Regional Program Specialist for review. But one day later, the pending entry had disappeared. Another person had already submitted Walshe’s case.
So why didn’t it appear in the database?
“At this time the case is not publicly viewable but is viewable to professional users. We need Law Enforcement approval to publish a case once submitted to our system,” the specialist told the Globe.
In 2020, after two years of review, the Baker administration task force released a report containing four pages of recommendations for streamlining and democratizing how the state investigates missing person cases. A top priority: mandating police departments and medical examiners submit cases to NamUs. Also, the group suggested officials create a statewide public clearinghouse similar to those used in New York and North Carolina.
Other recommendations included hiring a state “missing persons coordinator,” who could provide the families of missing persons with advice and resources, and upgrading training for law enforcement personnel, who now get little formal education in investigating missing person cases.
But nearly three years after the report was released, the state has adopted none of those recommendations. With the Baker administration no longer in office, the initiative risks becoming a distant memory; the report itself appears lost to time: it doesn’t surface easily in searches on Google or mass.gov.
“We sent it to the people that were involved and they said they looked at it. But honestly, I can’t even promise you that they did that,” said Bish, whose parents privately paid for missing persons training for dozens of officers in Central Massachusetts in the years after Molly’s disappearance.
During the search for Molly, law enforcement told the Bish family to steer clear of the media.
“We were doing grocery runs to Walmart at midnight to avoid people. It was crazy. It wasn’t until they had conversations with other families that had gone through this that we realized how wrong that advice was. They were like, ‘No, you got to get out there. You got to talk to the media. You got to share the story. That’s how people will look for her. And you got to get a picture out there,’” said Bish.
Molly Bish’s remains were found three years after she went missing. Police believe she was murdered, but the case remains officially unresolved.
Today, Heather Bish has become a point person for other families scrambling to find their loved ones with limited support from the state and law enforcement. Humaira Niazi rang Bish for help locating her daughter, Soomaiiah Quraiishi, who has been missing since she was 7, almost 22 years. More recently, Bish has been advising the family of Brittany Tee, a 35-year-old woman from Brookfield who has been missing since Jan. 10.
“I see these families suffering and what am I supposed to do with this awful experience?” said Bish. “Still, I feel like I’m doing the [missing persons coordinator] role that we on the task force recommended. But for free and without the proper credentials.”
Bish is not the only person thrust into this role. Other citizens have stepped in to fill the void left by government inaction.
Sarah Kiley Schoff, a forensic anthropologist and fellow task force member, scours the Internet for missing person cases and submits them to NamUs. She has no affiliation with the state or law enforcement. Yet she was the one to enter the East Boston mother, Reina Morales-Rojas, into the national log on Jan. 20.
For now, a Facebook page created by a North Adams event planning executive might be the most comprehensive public database of missing persons in the state. Christopher Boucher created the Massachusetts Missing & Unsolved page — which has more than 6,000 followers and averages two posts a day — on a whim in May 2021. Deep in the throes of the pandemic, he and some childhood friends became invested in the case of Lynn Burdick, a Berkshire County teen who disappeared in 1982 while working a solo shift at a convenience store in Western Massachusetts. But the friends soon realized Burdick was just one of thousands of outstanding cases.
“We thought we could canvass the state and do some daily searches,” said the 41-year-old Boucher, who now lives in Washington, D.C. “A lot of times, we’re looking for the Ana Walshes of the world. We’re looking for the Brittany Tees. But we’re forgetting about some of the others.”
Hanna Krueger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her @hannaskrueger. Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @tianarochon.