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Canada works to institute a national missing persons DNA databank

Judy Peterson, whose daughter Lindsey Nicholls went missing in August, 1993, has been fighting for a missing persons index fro more than a decade.

Chad Hipolito/The Globe and Mail

Judy Peterson arranged to meet a pair of British Columbia RCMP officers on the side of the road halfway between Courtenay and Victoria. The police opened the back of their SUV, retrieved a DNA collection kit and pricked Ms. Peterson's fingertip for blood.

The sample was transformed into a genetic profile and uploaded into the province's DNA databank, where it was cross-checked with profiles culled from unidentified remains – a system unique to B.C. in Canada. There wasn't a match: Ms. Peterson's missing daughter, Lindsey, wasn't among the remains stored at the B.C. Coroners Service facility.

But what Ms. Peterson still doesn't know is whether Lindsey is among the hundreds of other unidentified remains across the country. Nor does she know whether her daughter's DNA was found at a crime scene. That's because Canada doesn't have a national missing persons DNA databank – yet.

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The Conservatives' latest budget, tabled in February, pledged up to $8.1-million over five years starting in 2016-2017 to create a DNA-based national missing persons index (MPI). It's what Ms. Peterson has been fighting for since about 2000.

"They say if you lose a child, it's like you lose a limb, and you have to learn how to live and function in the world with part of you missing," said Ms. Peterson, whose daughter disappeared at age 14 in August, 1993. "When you have a missing child, it's like your limb has been crushed. Every time there's a new lead or there's something in the news, it's as if that wound gets bumped and starts bleeding again."

Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, the lead minister on the file, told The Globe and Mail he will always remember the late Jim Flaherty delivering his final budget, looking up at Ms. Peterson in the House of Commons' gallery and promising to create a national MPI. Calling the measure one of Mr. Flaherty's legacy items, Mr. Blaney said he's committed to tabling legislation by the end of 2015.

He said it's "realistic" to foresee the government creating a national MPI and a national human remains index (HRI), both of which could be housed at the RCMP's existing National DNA Data Bank facility in Ottawa. Mr. Blaney also said it's within the realm of possibility to cross-reference those two indexes with two existing ones – the crime scene index (CSI) and the convicted offenders index (COI) – to search, for example, for missing people like Lindsey at known crime scenes.

The measure is in draft stage, he said, and it's too soon to know exactly how it will unfold or what the consultation process will yield, including with regard to privacy. But now that the majority Conservatives have promised funding, the question doesn't appear to be whether the measure will come to fruition, but rather what its scope and fine print will look like.

Decade in the making

The creation of a national MPI has been debated in Canada for more than a decade, championed by MPs of various stripes, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and mothers like Ms. Peterson and Melanie Alix, whose then-21-year-old son, Dylan Koshman, went missing in Edmonton, 2008. NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison said the budget measure is in principle a "good idea and could have positive results."

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But it has likewise elicited concern from the Criminal Lawyers' Association and the federal Office of the Privacy Commissioner, which doesn't object to a national missing-persons databank so long as it's tightly secured and independent from the CSI and COI. Those two indexes collectively contain more than 350,000 profiles and have gleaned over 29,000 "hits" assisting investigations.

The Assembly of First Nations, which isn't mandated to speak on the issue but has discussed it with relatives of some of the hundreds of missing aboriginal women, said some families cautiously support the measure but are wary of the government's motives for acquiring and storing DNA.

There are untold missing people across the country, the number unknown since some cases go unreported and others are misrepresented in national data, in part due to repeat runaways. According to numbers released by the Canadian Police Information Centre in April, more than 60,000 missing adult, youth and children reports were filed last year.

At the same time, there are hundreds of unidentified remains in Canada. Ontario Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said his office is aware of about 200, including a case dating back to 1964, while the acting manager of the B.C. Coroners Service Identification and Disaster Unit, Bill Inkster, said there are 188 there.

The two provinces, home to the highest number of missing persons reports last year, have different ways of handling remains deemed unlikely to be identified. Dr. Huyer said it's standard practice to bury the remains but first preserve a tooth for possible DNA extraction. B.C., meantime, stores the entire dried skeleton in a cardboard box.

"All of our unidentified remains cases are missing persons – every single one of them," Dr. Inkster said, noting his office identifies remains but doesn't investigate missing persons cases. He said it's a "big day" if there's a random match between a missing person's profile and a human remains profile. "We probably get three or four a year, but that's huge."

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The B.C. human identification model, which also tracks cold cases using a geographic information system, is so pioneering that the man credited with the regime, Stephen Fonseca, has been seconded to a Middle Eastern country hoping to establish a similar system.

Debate over DNA

The budget says the national MPI would "supplement" the work now underway at the RCMP National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, which doesn't include DNA profiles but maintains a website called "Canada's Missing." It displays pictures and biological information about hundreds of missing people, as well as photos, sketches and busts of the faces of unidentified remains.

"The DNA piece has always been the missing piece of the puzzle," said Jim Gurney, a retired Edmonton constable who for five years worked on the Koshman case. "Soon we'll have the sense that, for the most part, everything that can be done will be done." He said police have traditionally kept an ear out for possible connections to remains found in other jurisdictions, but "if you don't hear about it, you don't know about it."

The Conservatives' budget says the funding would be used to support police and coroners in submitting samples and would facilitate the comparison of those profiles with ones from the National DNA Data Bank. That language seems to suggest the two new indexes would be linked to the CSI and the COI.

Mr. Garrison said "useful things" could be accomplished through cross-referencing, though he added he doesn't want the proposed program to be derailed over controversy around linking it to the two existing investigative-focused indexes. "We need to see the legislation," he said.

Those who want the two new indexes to exist independently from the older ones say looking for missing people in, especially, the crime scene index risks privacy and legal issues.

Anthony Moustacalis, the head of the Criminal Lawyers' Association, said it's possible an intentionally "missing" person's DNA could innocently end up at a crime scene. Police might then become aware of that person's whereabouts, infringing on the freedom to move with anonymity.

He explained his apprehensions on the legal side this way: "If I decide I want to leave a relationship, and the person is insecure about that, and someone wants to issue a personal effect and track me down for an improper purpose, my DNA goes in the databank. If something matches with a crime scene, then my right against incriminating myself with my own bodily substances has potentially been violated."

Earlier iterations of proposed missing-persons databank legislation said a DNA profile could only be used for the purpose of search and identification – ruling out, it seems, criminal prosecution. Mr. Blaney wouldn't speculate on whether the forthcoming legislation would contain similar language, but said the point of the measure is to bring families closure.

Ms. Peterson said she wants to look for Lindsey in the CSI because if her daughter was killed but no remains were found, then it's possible a trace of Lindsey is in that index.

Seeking closure

From the moment Mr. Blaney was sworn in as Public Safety Minister, his Conservative colleague, John Duncan, has been pressing him to move forward with the measure, Mr. Blaney said. It was Mr. Duncan, the Chief Government Whip, who got Ms. Peterson in a room last November with three key people – Mr. Blaney, Justice Minister Peter MacKay and Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson – to make her case for federal funding and legislation.

Mr. Duncan, who met Ms. Peterson at a picnic commemorating 20 years since Lindsey's disappearance, said it would make the "most sense" to house the two new indexes at the existing National DNA Data Bank.

This, briefly, is what happens there today: After a blood, saliva or hair sample is transformed into a DNA profile, it is then uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), a U.S.-developed software package that stores and compares the profiles. For privacy's sake, convicted offender samples are denoted by a barcode and crime scene samples by a unique number identifier, an RCMP spokeswoman said, adding that any identifying information is kept at a separate RCMP registry.

Mr. Gurney said police figured Ottawa would eventually establish a national MPI and HRI, but he expressed surprise that it has taken this long to see tangible federal commitment.

"It's not going to create any happy endings, but at least for some families it'll give an indication of what happened, rather than them never knowing," he said. "Until [Dylan Koshman] is found, people will keep asking, 'Hey, did you ever find out what happened to Dylan?' One day, we want to be able to say 'yes,' but we're just not there yet."

Dylan Koshman, missing since 2008

On Sept. 23, 2008, Dylan Koshman called his mother, Melanie Alix, from Alberta to wish her a happy birthday. He sang to her but soon after disappeared, his Happy Birthday tune the last time Ms. Alix heard her then-21-year-old son's voice.

Born and raised in Moose Jaw, Sask., Dylan had moved to Edmonton that spring, taking a job as a pipefitter and rooming with his two cousins. It was the first time he'd lived away from home, and the first time he'd had a steady girlfriend. Dylan had been curious about "big city" life, Ms. Alix remembers, but often mused about coming home.

On Oct. 11, 2008, after an argument with his cousins about a family issue, he went missing and hasn't been seen since. "All of a sudden there was nothing," Ms. Alix said. "He was gone. Not a trace. Not a sign. Nothing."

"Where is he?" she asked. "That's what I don't get. I don't understand it all. Unless it was somebody he knew and it was an accident, and they hid it. I don't know. I have no idea. Maybe he's alive. But the chances of that, I know, as time goes on, are limited. He wouldn't be alive and not contact us. I know that for a fact."

Ms. Alix went to Edmonton and wallpapered the city with more than 20,000 posters of her son. "We made that city know there was someone missing," she said, noting she couldn't help but look elsewhere, too. "Even in Calgary, I saw a guy going up an escalator and I took off to see if it was him. And then you feel silly. You're always looking."

Her mother was the family's "pillar," insisting on monthly candlelit vigils, where she not only prayed for Dylan's return but also for a national missing persons index that might bring her family some answers. Ms. Alix's mother died two weeks before the Feb. 11 budget announcement pledging federal money to create a national DNA-based missing persons databank.

Ms. Alix, who said she has suffered depression and anxiety, years ago submitted her DNA to Edmonton police in case another jurisdiction reached out with a lead or vice versa. She said she isn't nervous at the prospect of putting her DNA into the future national index, even though it could match an unidentified remain. "I never thought of anything other than finding him when I gave the sample to [Edmonton] police, and I still feel that way," she said. "I would like to be able to put him to rest and have a memorial. If he's gone."

Dylan's 27th birthday was on April 11.

Lindsey Nicholls, missing since 1993

She just vanished.

That's how Lindsey Nicholls' mother, Judy Peterson, describes her then-14-year-old daughter's disappearance on Aug. 2, 1993. More than 20 years have since passed, the first five marked by a dizzying search.

"I could barely be in a crowded room or at a mall or even driving around," Ms. Peterson said. "There were so many young blond girls. I would just be dizzy trying to look at them all, trying to watch the way they walk."

Ms. Peterson described Lindsey as athletic, a lover of baseball and swimming, and artistic, too. She was also "definitely struggling as a teenager at the time," Ms. Peterson said. She believes Lindsey was hitchhiking on a rural road outside Courtenay, B.C., when she disappeared.

Ms. Peterson submitted her DNA to police in order to search the provincial databank for a "hit" with an existing or possibly future unidentified remain, but there was no match. "It was in the back of my mind, absolutely," Ms. Peterson said of possibly learning her daughter had died. "But now I have the comfort of knowing she's not in B.C., and I have the comfort of knowing that if new remains are profiled and it matches, I would know."

She said she was "shocked and horrified" to learn, 14 years ago, that there was no way of doing a similar search across all of Canada. And she faced a roller-coaster of emotions every time a jurisdiction contacted her investigator saying it's possible they had found a link to Lindsey's case.

The budget announcement was exciting, she said, and she looks forward to seeing the index launched, matches found and families given answers. "But in the end, I am still what has become part of my very identity: I am the mother of a missing child," she explained. "My biggest fear is to look into the future and imagine that I may never know what happened to Lindsey."

Lindsey's 36th birthday is in September.

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