Missing Persons Mission

MUCH of what the Salvation Army does occurs in the public sector, but Maj. Ruth Miller serves behind the lines in a tedious search-and-find mission. At a small office in New York's Greenwich Village, she heads up the busy Missing Persons Bureau of the organization's Eastern territory. The three-person bureau currently has more than 4,000 active cases, kept alive for four years. Some are the result of police referrals. The purpose is not to track down suspects; it is to reunite people with long-lost relatives who have drifted away for various reasons. ``Sometimes people just lose touch. Sometimes both [people] are looking for each other,'' says Major Miller. Often, however, family disputes are the cause of extended separations.

The desire for contact is not always mutual, and what happens after a missing person is found depends on the individual. ``We have to have written permission from the missing person to give their address, telephone number, or any information,'' Miller says. ``Sometimes they will say, `Tell the inquirer that I'm OK, but I do not wish contact at this time.' From my experience, I'd say 75 percent, maybe more, want to reunite.''

The bureau and its sister services around the country find about half the people they're seeking. The bureau does not accept cases of persons missing less than six months, and it is careful to steer clear of contentious situations, such as those involving debt collection or child support. Basic facts about the missing person are required before a search can begin: complete name, birthplace, birth date, and names of parents (including mother's maiden name). The person who initiates the search pays $5.

The process is rather straightforward. Inquiries are frequently directed to the Social Security Administration, postmasters, and credit-union computer services. In addition, leads are gleaned from information provided about the missing person's background.

Some people are found quickly, but a search normally lasts six months to a year. Most of the work is handled by letter, including contacts with the missing persons.

``Many people won't accept a telephone call as authentic,'' Miller explains. The sheer volume of work also acts as an obstacle. It can really pour in after Dear Abby and Ann Landers mention the Salvation Army's missing-persons bureaus in their columns, which they do occasionally.

Miller is still responding to a backlog of letters from 1988, while keeping up with more recent correspondence. She says consideration is being given to expanding her staff. The first six months of [1989], the average ``find'' was 20 missing persons a month. Thereafter it shot up to 45 with one additional person typing letters.

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