Missing girl’s mother fights for DNA bank

National service 'would absolutely solve more crimes'

Joanne Hatherly
National Post

Saturday, October 12, 2002

VICTORIA - Lindsey Jill Nicholls, 14, planned to meet her friends in Courtenay on Aug. 2, 1993. Like many teenagers who live in rural communities with limited bus service, she decided to hitchhike. What should have been a 10-minute ride has turned into a nine-year nightmare for Lindsey's family, because the blond-haired, green-eyed teenager never made it to where she was going.

Rob Kruyt, National Post. Judy Peterson with daughter Kim, is campaigning for a missing persons DNA data bank. Her daughter Lindsey disappeared in 1993.

Since that day, Lindsey's mother, Judy Peterson, has struggled with the questions that surround her daughter's disappearance. Mrs. Peterson hoped answers about Lindsey's fate could be found through DNA matching, but now her hopes are on hold until Canada's DNA legislation catches up with technology.

Canada's two-year-old DNA Identification Act has already been outpaced by DNA science and the ethical challenges that come with it, so the Justice Department has initiated a public consultation process that will continue until the end of this month.

The importance of DNA identification has gained widespread media attention in the criminal investigation on Robert Pickton's Port Coquitlam farm. The pig farmer is accused of murdering 15 women.

Canada is one of the few countries that maintains a national DNA data bank. The data bank stores two types of information: DNA of convicted offenders of serious crimes, such as murder and sexual assault, and DNA gathered from crime scenes.


The RCMP continually makes cross-references between these two data banks in the search for matches between an offender and a crime scene. Four hundred matches have been made since the program was launched in June, 2000. In addition to finding the guilty, DNA evidence has been used to exonerate the innocent.

Despite these successes, there is a gap in the system.

The DNA of missing people is not entered into the data banks because even when foul play is suspected, there is no crime scene attached to their disappearance.

Mrs. Peterson is calling for the federal government to create a missing persons DNA data bank.

"If there was a missing persons DNA data bank to check against the offender or crime scene data banks," says Mrs. Peterson, "they would absolutely solve more crimes."

She is not alone in her campaign. The Missing Children Society of Canada is also asking the Justice Department to expand the national DNA bank to include missing children.

"DNA is just another tool to help us end this nightmare for families," says Rhonda Morgan, MCSC executive director and investigator.

Up to September, 2000, the missing children society directed its child-identification efforts on fingerprinting children, but now the focus has turned toward DNA identification. "Children's fingerprints change up to the age of seven, but a person's DNA remains the same throughout their life," Ms. Morgan says.

Bob Stair, a B.C. coroner, understands Mrs. Peterson's frustration at the absence of a national DNA data bank for missing persons. Mr. Stair, who manages B.C.'s forensic identification unit, reports there are more than 100 unidentified human remains in B.C. morgues.

"If you have a DNA data bank that is in a format other jurisdictions across the country can access, identification would almost be a matter of sitting down at a computer and matching data," Mr. Stair says.

Under the current system, B.C. coroners are able to identify only one or two bodies a year.

B.C. RCMP are not waiting for the federal government to make up its mind on DNA indexing for missing persons. The Criminal Operations Policy Unit is working on a provincial draft policy to direct officers in the collection and handling of DNA samples. Ironically, the writing of this policy has been put on hold because of the strain placed on RCMP resources by the Pickton investigation.

John Dixon, President of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, says that employing DNA data banks to locate missing persons is an appropriate use of DNA technology, but he cautions that safeguards must be kept in place to protect the privacy of individuals.

"DNA information must be excised from the record once the missing person is found," Mr. Dixon says.

If all these groups agree that a national missing persons DNA data bank is a valuable tool, why doesn't Canada have one?

Michael Zigayer, the Justice Department's head of senior counsel in the criminal law policy section, has worked on DNA legislation since its inception in the early 1990s. He says a missing persons DNA data bank was introduced in the initial public consultation process, however, it was dropped before legislation was drafted because of opposition from various groups, including privacy officials and feminist organizations.

Mr. Zigayer says the present public consultation is limited to fine-tuning the existing legislation and does not include plans to create a missing persons DNA data bank.

However, Mr. Zigayer says, "If requests for a national missing persons DNA data bank appear in the public consultation process, we would look at it."

"I don't think they've asked the right questions," says Mrs. Peterson, who intends to continue a vigorous campaign for the creation of the missing persons DNA data bank. "I don't understand why anybody would be against this. I have no comfort now."

© Copyright  2002 National Post

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Updated: August 21, 2016