By Julie Power
Eight-year-old Valerie Eastwell went missing after being sent to a neighbour’s house in Gol Gol, NSW to deliver a message on August 15, 1945.
Now a new dedicated forensic laboratory will use craniofacial reconstruction not previously done in Australia and forensic genetic genealogy to attempt to match 850 sets of human remains with some 2600 people listed as missing on the national register.
The Australian Federal Police’s new Canberra facility, which opened today, will analyse a range of remains catalogued as part of an audit by the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons, which began in 2020.
These remains range from bone and teeth fragments, leg bones to entire skeletons. Many have been stored in morgues or forensic facilities for decades, some for up to 70 years, said the program leader, associate professor Jodie Ward.
The oldest missing person on the register in Australia is Valerie. Professor Jodie Ward stressed on Friday that missing persons such as Valerie weren’t just case numbers but unknown individuals with names, families and stories.
“We know that some of these deceased individuals may have died from a crime, some from misadventure, on land or on sea. You can’t tell by looking at the remains unless there is an obvious trauma. Our job is to reveal their identity and then the police will investigate the circumstances. We can’t do that until we know who they are.”
Professor Ward urged anyone related to the 2600 people who have been missing for more than three months to provide the laboratory with any DNA reference sample.
“Along with recovering DNA profiles from the bones, we need DNA profiles from relatives of
every missing person,” Associate Professor Ward said.
“We are also seeking the missing person’s personal effects, medical samples, dental records, physical information and photographs.”
“That could be DNA from close biological relatives, such as the DNA of mum and dad of a missing child, to compare to [the DNA in] bones and remains,” said Professor Ward.
“So something like a toothbrush, or a baby tooth, or a lock of hair, or their newborn screening card, that the police can use to compare the DNA with those in the remains.”
Professor Ward also asked that any member of the public who was using a genealogy site such as Ancestry.com to elect to make DNA material available to law enforcement.
This could also help identify a missing person.
The facility will also start doing the first-ever cranial facial reconstructions in Australia. This process combines artistry with technology using DNA characteristics that identify ancestry, and skin, eye and hair colour, to provide a face of a missing person.
“ It will give us a lead, and we will use scientific methods, like DNA, to confirm the identity,” said Professor Ward.
The DNA program, launched to reduce the number of outstanding missing persons, is funded by the Proceeds of Crime Act, 2002. It allows the Commonwealth to redirect ill-gotten gains back to the community.
Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews said she hoped it would provide answers to families and friends who had spent years searching and waiting for news of missing loved ones.
Families of long-term missing persons – those missing for more than three months – should register their interest in the program by emailing DNAProgram@afp.gov.au.
Crime Stoppers: 1800 333 000
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