WASHINGTON — A bill backed by the family of Gabby Petito that aims to improve the reporting process surrounding missing persons is heading to President Joe Biden’s desk following recent passage by Congress.
The “Help Find the Missing Act,” which also looks to make it easier for families and investigators to access information on unidentified human remains via a federal database, was championed by the family of Petito, a Blue Point native whose disappearance and homicide last year while on a cross-country trip with her fiance generated national attention.
“As parents through our own tragedy, we had the unfortunate opportunity to see all the disparities with the whole system,” Petito’s mother Nichole Schmidt said in a virtual news conference Friday. “When it comes to reporting missing adults, there just didn't seem to be an easy way around it. We learned the main disconnect was there was no streamlined system.”
The measure was passed with widespread bipartisan support in the House on Thursday by a 422-4 vote, and was approved last week by the Senate via a procedural unanimous consent vote.
Under the measure sponsored by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.), the Department of Justice and FBI will coordinate data-sharing between two existing databases that collect information on missing persons and unidentified human remains and will make the database accessible to the public.
“No family should have to face a complicated and disjointed system in order to find their loved one,” Hayes said in a statement, noting that “due to gaps in databases, missing persons and unidentified remains are rarely matched.”
The bill also requires the Department of Justice to issue guidelines to local law enforcement agencies and medical examiners' offices on best practices for handling missing person cases and for reporting unidentified human remains to the federal database.
Murphy introduced the bill in 2009 and has tried to get the measure passed ever since. He and Hayes credited the Petito family with playing a role in its passage. The measure, also known as “Billy’s Law,” has long been pushed by the family of Billy Smolinski, 31, who went missing from Waterbury, Connecticut, in August 2004.
“The passage of Billy’s Law is a testament to the dedication of families like the Smolinskis, the Petitos and every family who tirelessly fights to bring their missing loved one home,” Hayes said in a statement to Newsday. “These families were relentless in their outside mobilization efforts. They made phone calls to members and leadership, which helped get the bill on the calendar and brought many of my colleagues to a yes vote.”
Joe Petito, Gabby’s father, speaking at the virtual news conference hosted by Murphy and Hayes, said: “We've seen some huge gaps in the system. This is just one step towards filling those gaps.”
The White House did not immediately comment on Biden’s plans to review and sign the bill.