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Ottawa to create DNA bank
Island mom inspired move by lobbying police and politicians after daughter's
Lori Culbert, with files from Janice Tibbetts
Vancouver Sun; with files from CanWest News Service.
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
The federal solicitor-general plans to create a national missing-persons DNA
data bank, a new tool that could have saved valuable time in the missing-women
investigation had it existed two years ago, B.C.'s solicitor-general says.
The Missing Persons Index will compare DNA samples collected from relatives
of missing people to about 6,000 unidentified pieces of DNA that have been found
at crime scenes across Canada.
With the missing-women investigation, police had to ask relatives for DNA samples
after human remains were found last year on the Port Coquitlam pig farm owned
by Robert (Willy) Pickton, who is accused of murdering 15 of the 61 women missing
from the Downtown Eastside.
"It's really got to do with similar situations like we had in Port Coquitlam
where we actually had to go find the families to get the DNA after the fact,
after some of these people had been missing for years," B.C. Solicitor-General
Rich Coleman said. "It would be better if we could have a sort of voluntary
arrangement where they could come forward to give us the DNA and put it in a
bank ahead of time."
The announcement was made Tuesday in Quebec at a meeting of provincial and
federal justice ministers and solicitors-general.
Federal Solicitor-General Wayne Easter said his inspiration for a national
data bank came from Vancouver Island mother Judy Peterson.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," Peterson said from her home town of Sidney.
Her 14-year-old daughter Lindsey Nicholls "disappeared off the face of
the Earth" in 1993 while walking near Courtenay. Peterson began lobbying
police and politicians for a data bank after discovering five years ago there
was little she could do to find her daughter.
"I was shocked to find out there was no way to enter her DNA or my own
in order to put it in a data bank of any sort. So, all this time I haven't had
the comfort of knowing that if she was found, that I would know," she said.
B.C. morgues have unidentified remains belonging to 125 bodies that could be
compared to DNA from people like Peterson to try to determine if they belong
to missing people.
Easter said the index would also be cross-referenced with Canada's two existing
DNA data banks -- an index of DNA collected at crime scenes and a bank of offenders
convicted of serious crimes. "A DNA missing-persons index could help families
out there in a humanitarian way, bring the issue as best it can to an end, even
if it's not a happy end," he said.
A data bank has already been established in this province with DNA from some
relatives of the 61 missing women. But B.C. coroners have maintained that a
national tool is needed to include all missing people, to compare names to remains
found in every province, and to speed up the process of identification.
"This will be great because it will open it up to everybody," Bob
Stair, manager of training and forensic services for the B.C. coroner's service,
said after Tuesday's announcement. "That's very, very good news."
Relatives of missing women have indicated in the past that there were delays
with B.C. labs processing tens of thousands of DNA samples in the massive Pickton
case. But new technologies -- such as three robots being used at the RCMP's
forensic lab in Vancouver -- are beginning to reduce time needed for the tests.
Stair does not think the current backup is bad. "I think we're doing a
pretty good job between the private labs and the RCMP lab," he said.
It was Saanich-Gulf Islands Alliance MP Gary Lunn who put forth a private member's
bill, called Lindsey's Law, to create the data bank.
Now that the concept has been endorsed by the government, he hopes the data
bank will become law soon -- but he isn't sure if that will happen before or
after the Liberals elect a new leader and hold a federal election.
Lunn does not think the data bank will be expensive, and said it should save
money in police investigations and bring closure to many families.
"To do a DNA analysis is about $100 a sample, very inexpensive compared
to something like $75,000 to do a murder investigation," Lunn said.
The missing person data bank was to be launched with the crime scene index
three years ago, but was stalled when several advocacy groups raised concerns
that some missing people don't want to be found.
The issue is to be examined by a committee of federal and provincial officials
before the legislation is written, and Coleman is confident a system can be
established to confirm people are not missing without revealing their whereabouts.
"I'm sure we can take care of those privacy issues, and at the same time
let people know that person is alive and safe," he said.
Coleman hopes the data bank will be operating by next year.
"The intent is to try to get whatever legislation or regulation required
to be done this fall so it can be implemented in the new year," said the
former RCMP officer.
"It's something that is overdue in coming, in my opinion, because we've
dealt with the whole issue for the last two or three years with regards to the
Missing Women Task Force."
Although Peterson said Easter's "very, very exciting" proposed index
may not find Lindsey now that so many years have passed, she hopes it will help
another parent with a lost child.
"Just think how exciting it is going to be once this is in place and we
start getting some success and I can find out it has found somebody. That's
what I am looking forward to," she said.