Australia's first DNA program to solve cases of missing people launched: 'Remains are found all the time'

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Former Bega resident Dr Jodie Ward will lead the newly-announced National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons. Picture: Supplied
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Former Bega resident Dr Jodie Ward will lead the newly-announced National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons. Picture: Supplied

It is almost unbelievable to learn there are 2600 long-term missing people and an estimated 500 sets of unidentified human remains across Australia.

For years, families of these missing loved ones have waited for a result from investigations into the disappearances, hampered by a lack of resources, technology and, reportedly, communication difficulties between authorities in different states.

But that is set to change, as earlier this month the Australian Federal Police launched the country's first national DNA program to match unidentified human remains with missing persons.

It's titled the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons - and it's headed up by a Bega woman.

The program is led by Associate Professor Dr Jodie Ward, who was shocked when she learnt of the vast number of unidentified human remains in the country and has been advocating for such a program for the past five years.

"If we never know what happened to someone, there is no end in sight for that type of grief," the former Bega resident told ACM on Tuesday.

"I try to be realistic about this - we may not be able to identify every one of these sets of remains in Australia.

"But that does still provide some answers, if their loved one is not among the deceased. It may not be the answer they want, but it is an answer."

MAKING A DIFFERENCE:Dr Jodie Ward's $3.6million DNA program is funded by Proceeds of Crime funding. Picture: AFP

MAKING A DIFFERENCE:Dr Jodie Ward's $3.6million DNA program is funded by Proceeds of Crime funding. Picture: AFP

Dr Ward, who is also the director of the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research at the University of Technology in Sydney, said there are "many reasons" why it has taken so long to establish a national DNA program to identify missing persons, including a lack of resources and available technologies.

She said cases of identifying human remains usually fell into one of three categories: remains found decades ago and forensic technologies were not available at the time; some techniques were attempted based on what was available, but were unsuccessful; and despite using all current techniques available the person was still unidentified.

While her new program has DNA in its title, she said it would use a suite of forensic techniques to help with the identification of human remains.

Firstly, remains will be examined by a forensic anthropologist - to attempt to learn the gender, age and ancestry of the person - then a forensic dentist.

If this does not result in a positive identification, DNA testing will take place to try to recover a profile which will be uploaded to a national database, while a missing person and their relatives will also have their DNA profiled.

If that too is unsuccessful, authorisation can be sought to search an international DNA database, while other techniques can also be used such as forensic genetic genealogy, which uses public genealogy databases and has seen success in the US.

"We have all the experts under one roof now so all the remains will get treated the same by experts in their field," Dr Ward said.

"What we can't do in Australia we can outsource to international experts."

Some of the remains are 70 years old, so it will be "challenging" to identify them, she said.

Dr Ward hopes the legacy of her program is that it embeds a coordinated, national approach to identifying missing persons across Australia.

"Missing persons cases aren't going away. Remains are found all the time," she said.

"We live in a country surrounded by coastline, it's not uncommon for remains to wash up on beaches, or for remains to be found after a bushfire goes through.

"Once the program ends, if I've done a little bit to improve the situation for families then I think I will have achieved my goal."

The $3.6million DNA program is funded by Proceeds of Crime funding and is expected to run for two-and-a-half years.

Anyone with information relating to a missing person is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.

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This story The human face behind Australia's first national DNA program to solve missing person cases first appeared on Bega District News.