A national database to help identify missing persons and unidentified remains is more than a year away, but families and experts say that DNA is the missing piece of the puzzle that the initiative needs.
Judy Peterson has been a proponent of such a database since her daughter, Lindsey Jill Nicholls, went missing in 1993.
“I think the DNA databank is just the missing piece,” she said from her home in Sidney, B.C. “I believe it will happen, I just can’t understand why it’s taking so long.”
Ms. Peterson started a petition in 2003 called Lindsey’s Law, calling for DNA from missing persons and unidentified remains to be added to the National DNA Data Bank, which was set up in 2000 to help police with their investigations.
Melanie Alix’s son Dylan Koshman went missing in Edmonton in October, 2008 and she too has been petitioning the government for such an addition to the data bank.
“I’d give my life to find my son,” she said from her home in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Ms. Alix and her husband gave DNA samples to police in Edmonton after her son’s disappearance, but they were not accessible to law enforcement in other provinces because there is no national DNA database for missing persons and unidentified remains.
A new index called the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains would store descriptive information on these cases and allow for them to be compared nationally for the first time when it launches in late 2013, but it won’t include DNA.
The federal government has been resistant to amending the National DNA Data Bank to include the thousands of missing persons and hundreds of unidentified bodies across the country. It cites privacy concerns and high costs.
Ray Boughen, Conservative MP from Saskatchewan, said that costs could be lowered if DNA from these cases was voluntarily incorporated into the existing database for convicted offenders and crime scenes.
“It’s voluntary, no one is going to grab anyone by the throat and say we’re going to take your DNA,” he said from Regina.
Mr. Boughen presented Ms. Alix’s petition to the House of Commons on Feb. 1 and in June he re-submitted three different petitions related to the databank amendment with close to 8,000 signatures. Vic Toews, the federal Minister of Public Safety, responded to the initial petition and said the government “accepted in principle” the recommendation, but added it continued to raise “a number of complex legal, privacy, financial and practical considerations.”
As of June 30, the data bank had assisted in more than 23,000 investigations, including more than 1,600 murder cases, and contained more than 325,000 DNA profiles from convicted offenders and crime scenes.
According to the RCMP’s Canadian Police Information Centre, there were 6,838 people listed as missing as of March 31, but there is no recorded number of unidentified remains in cemeteries and morgues across the country.
Andrew McCallum, Chief Coroner of Ontario, said numbers change on a daily basis but about 1,000 of those missing were from Ontario, in addition to 108 unknown bodies.
“The reason that it’s a little challenging is the jurisdiction over death is a provincial and territorial responsibility so the federal government can provide funding but it doesn’t actually have jurisdiction over these provincial matters,” he said.
Yet Ms. Peterson, who will face the 19th anniversary of her daughter’s disappearance on Aug. 2, is still without closure.
“Maybe her DNA is sitting unidentified in the Crime Scene Index and I would never know,” she said.
“Those remains that are sitting in coroner’s offices, those are people, they’re people’s loved ones and they deserve to be identified and the family members deserve to know.”