With her long brown hair and chubby cheeks, the cherubic image of the toddler girl whose body was found on a Massachusetts beach has haunted the nation with a harrowing question: Who was this child, and how did she die?
She’s found, but still lost. And she’s not alone.
In what the National Institute of Justice has called a “mass disaster over time,’’ more than 10,000 bodies across the U.S. — 650 of them children — remain unidentified.
Dead children without a name are rare, because people typically notice when a child disappears, said David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police. Yet weeks have now passed since this little girl was discovered wrapped in a blanket on Deer Island, a peninsula that juts out into Boston Harbor. On Thursday, authorities launched an anonymous tip line with the hope that someone who knows something about her might come forward.
“That’s what’s frustrating with this case,’’ Procopio said. “Someone knows she’s missing, and those people aren’t coming forward.’’
One explanation for the lack of information is that her world was likely very small, Procopio said. She might not have been in school or exposed to anyone beyond her caregivers. And there’s a darker possibility, too. She could have been hidden from the world, similar to the two neglected children and three infants’ remains found in a house in Blackstone, Massachusetts, last year.
At least 72 other corpses — nearly all of them adults — found in Massachusetts since the mid 1970s remain nameless, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. More than half of them have broad age ranges such as “14 to 99’’ or don’t list an age at all. Those remains could have just been bones, or a body part, like the torso found attached to a rolling dolly last June on a beach in the town of Sandwich.
An image of the Lady of the Dunes.The Boston Globe/File
The oldest case is a woman known as the Lady of the Dunes, found on Provincetown’s Race Point beach in the summer of 1974. Her head had been bashed in and hands cut off before she was found. Forty years later, despite advanced DNA technology and even the presence of mystical psychics, authorities haven’t been able to give her a name.
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Massachusetts handles any unidentified bodies or remains. Most are matched with a name within hours or days of being found, said Felix Browne, an office spokesman.
After “reasonable efforts’’ are made to identify the person, according to state law, the remains are sent to the Department of Transitional Assistance for burial. The remains of five people are currently lying unidentified in the state’s morgue, Browne said.
Still, investigators don’t stop searching. Just this year, Boston police released a facial reconstruction of one of two teenage boys found dead in the woods of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood in 1988.
Investigators have a good chance of finding out what happened to Baby Doe, said Robert Lowery, a vice president overseeing the missing children division at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
She was found still dressed in her clothes, not long after her body was disposed of, which will help investigators figure out who she is and determine her cause of death, he said.
Her DNA has been sent for comparison to others. If a family member had been swabbed for one reason or another, she might be matched to that person in the Combined DNA Index System database.
Until any matches come back, investigators wait for someone to come forward. But they won’t give up.
“You have a beautiful young child here,’’ Lowery said. “This could be just about anyone’s baby.’’
Gallery: Notorious unsolved crimes in Massachusetts