AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The discovery of the three women in Cleveland has overshadowed another story here in Washington, about an 83-year-old woman found dead yesterday near Reagan National Airport. Victoria Kong suffered short-term memory loss. She arrived at the airport Friday on a flight, but went missing after wandering off on foot. The stories, taken together, paint a broad and varied picture of what it means to be missing in America, and the two cases sent us looking at the latest missing-persons numbers.
Here to help is Todd Matthews. He's director of communications for NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. That's a Department of Justice program run through the University of North Texas. Todd, welcome to the program.
TODD MATTHEWS: Thank you for having me.
CORNISH: Now, give us some context here. Just how many people go missing in this country each year? And can you give a sense of who they are - children, adults, age or race?
MATTHEWS: You know, the missing touches everybody, I think. In 2012, we had 661,000 cases of missing persons; and that's just from that one year. Very quickly, 659,000 of those were canceled. So that means those persons either come back; in some cases, located as deceased persons, maybe never an unidentified person; or just a total misunderstanding. So at the end of 2012, of those 661,000 minus the canceled, we had 2,079 cases that remained at the end of the year as unresolved.
CORNISH: Now, how rare is this case in Cleveland - of children missing, taken against their will, but turning up alive a decade later?
MATTHEWS: It is rare, but not unheard of for somebody to be missing for a number of years. We had a case just this past week where a woman was missing from Pennsylvania, turned up alive in Florida and obviously, of her own free will that she chose to do this.
CORNISH: So is this kind of like, every once in a while it comes up? Or you're saying that this happens more frequently than people think?
MATTHEWS: Well, it might happen more frequently than people think. It's not an everyday thing, but it does happen. And sometimes, people just choose to go missing. And they have a right to do that. An adult, if I decide I want to disconnect from my family, move on, start a new life, I certainly have the right to do so.
CORNISH: Now, Todd Matthews, we mentioned at the top, the recent story of Victoria Kong. How common is it for an elderly adult with - say, dementia to go missing because he or she has simply wandered off; and are these cases on the rise?
MATTHEWS: Well, it happens every day, you know. The rising statistics show that dementia's on the rise, and people do tend to wander off and usually, they're found very quickly. An elderly person can wander off and die in a very short period of time, and be found within a matter of days. So - I mean, it's going to happen.
CORNISH: Now, what trends have you seen in these numbers over the years? Some people might wonder, with - in the age of kind of surveillance technology, if that has changed things for the missing.
MATTHEWS: In my personal experience, I've seen the missing numbers recorded nationally drop. There's not as many as were listed before. And that can be partially because of resolution of older cases, and that can be possibly because we communicate better now. We're in a more instant society now, so the information crosses the globe very quickly. We have the Amber Alerts, everything that helps this nation connect now. You know, it's so much different between now and just 15 years ago. It's a whole different world.
CORNISH: Is there anything in the stats that surprised you recently?
MATTHEWS: Not surprised me, but we do know that there are 40,000 unidentified remains in this nation; and that was through studies with local coroners, medical examiners. And 40,000, that's a pretty big number. It doesn't mean those numbers were reported nationally to the federal level. Federally, we know of a thousand-some-odd unidentified cases. That means they were never reported to the federal level. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: After this story aired, Matthews contacted NPR to say he misspoke. Instead of saying "federally, we know of a thousand-some-odd unidentified cases," he should have same "a few thousand-some-odd unidentified cases."]
So through studies, we've realized that there are many more. They're in evidence rooms, they're in morgues, they're buried, you know, so we have a lot people out there that are unidentified and they belong to somebody.
CORNISH: That's Todd Matthew. He's director of communications for NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Todd Matthews, thank you for speaking with us.
MATTHEWS: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.