Reporting from Washington — As the House on Tuesday approved "Billy's Law," a bill designed to aid families searching for missing loved ones, Janice Smolinski had more than a casual interest.
Her son, Billy, for whom the legislation is named, disappeared more than five years ago.
The measure, which seeks to expand online public information on missing people and unidentified remains, comes in the wake of missing-persons cases that have drawn national attention, including that of Mitrice Richardson, 24, who disappeared after being released from the Malibu-Lost Hills Station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in September without her car, cellphone or purse.
The legislation grows out of Smolinski's search for her son, who went missing at age 31 in 2004 in Connecticut. She said authorities think he was killed.
"In our search to find our son we encountered a Pandora's box," she testified at a recent congressional hearing. "And when we opened it, we unleashed the nightmare plaguing the world of the missing and the unidentified dead."
Smolinski and her husband, Bill, "met law enforcement that didn't understand how to handle an adult missing-persons case, and then ran into a national system of disconnected and inaccessible databases that didn't allow them to be true partners in the search," Rep. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.) said Tuesday. Murphy is the Smolinskis' congressman and the bill's chief sponsor.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who was a sponsor of the bill, said that in Richardson's case, her family "would be able to access certain information updated by law enforcement and be better-equipped to monitor official activity and contribute to their own findings."
If a better-coordinated effort had been in place at the time of Richardson's disappearance, Waters said, "I'm confident that we'd have a better understanding of what happened to Mitrice Richardson."
Richardson's family has conducted four fruitless searches for the young woman, including one of the most extensive searches in the history of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.
While the online National Missing and Unidentified Persons System contains information on 2,856 missing people and 6,241 unidentified remains for public use, it doesn't include thousands of FBI records. Compounding the problem, authorities are required to report missing people under age 21, but not missing adults.
"It's likely that many missing-persons cases remain open for failure to connect missing-person profiles with unidentified remains that are being held," said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), another sponsor of the bill.
The legislation requires the FBI to share information, excluding sensitive and confidential data, with the public database. It authorizes $50 million in grants over five years to encourage state and local officials to share information on missing people and unidentified remains.
The grants program, Murphy said, would "make sure that all the information that a coroner may have in California is posted onto a national database so a family searching for their missing loved one in Connecticut has that information."
Smolinski, who has a 34-year-old daughter, never expected to be lobbying for federal legislation.
"We have tried to change the system so no family would have to endure the anguish that we have lived through these past five years."
A similar bill was introduced Tuesday in the Senate.