National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons

National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons

In July 2020, the Australian Federal Police’s (AFP) National Missing Persons Coordination Centre (NMPCC) launched the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons.

The aim of this multidisciplinary Program is to apply contemporary forensic techniques to current unidentified human remains (UHR) cases to assist Australian law enforcement to:

  • establish their identity
  • solve long-term missing persons cases, and
  • provide answers to families with missing relatives.

The success of this nationally-coordinated Program will centre on working collaboratively with police, coronial and forensic agencies across Australia to resolve these cold cases, and importantly, families of missing loved ones who are integral to a DNA-led identification effort such as this.
 

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How can family members be involved?

Family members have an important part to play in the identification process and are encouraged to provide the following forensic information to the local police to aid the investigation of unidentified and missing persons:

  • Forensic evidence including: personal items (e.g. toothbrushes), dentist and doctor details, dental and medical records (e.g. x-rays, newborn screening cards), relevant biographical information (e.g. sex, age, ancestry, eye/hair colour, height etc.) or photographs.
  • Reference DNA samples collected voluntarily from close biological relatives of missing persons.

In addition, family members are encouraged to formally report long-term missing persons to the local police if they have not already done so.

To provide any of this information please contact your case officer, or the Missing Persons Unit in your State or Territory.

What is the process of providing a reference DNA sample?

The process of providing a reference DNA sample is outlined below, and will be facilitated by your local police:

  1. A family member gives informed consent in the presence of an independent person to provide a voluntary reference DNA sample for the purposes of assisting to identify a missing or deceased person.
  2. A family member can obtain legal advice before deciding whether or not to consent to the forensic procedure.
  3. A police officer will supervise the collection of a reference DNA sample using a non-intimate forensic procedure; this is usually in the form of a self-administered mouth swab.
  4. The forensic procedure may be recorded by electronic (audio and/or visual) means.
  5. A police officer will confirm and document the biological relationship of the family member to the missing person.
  6. After collection, the reference DNA sample will be packaged securely and transported to the forensic laboratory for DNA testing.
  7. A family member may withdraw consent to the forensic procedure being performed at any time.

What will my DNA be used for?

The DNA profile obtained from the reference DNA sample will be entered onto the relevant state DNA database and/or the national DNA database by the forensic laboratory for state and/or national searching and matching against UHR and/or other relevant categories depending on the consent given by family members (and as defined by the legislation in each State and Territory).

If no match is found, consent may then be sought from family members for their DNA profile to be entered onto the international DNA database for international searching and matching against UHR.

Any resulting DNA matches will be reported to State and Territory Police by the forensic laboratory or agency.

State and Territory Police will investigate the association between the UHR and the missing person and notify family members accordingly.

The fact sheets available below provide more information about DNA testing and forensic techniques.

How is my DNA stored?

The mouth swab, DNA and DNA profile information is securely stored at the forensic laboratory, and can only be accessed by authorised forensic laboratory staff.

The reference DNA sample is given a unique number on receipt at the forensic laboratory and this number is used throughout the testing process and when submitting the DNA profile to the database/s.

The DNA profile will remain on the database/s until a missing person has been located or identified and any related legal proceedings are finalised, or the family member who voluntarily provided the reference DNA sample requests that it be removed.

A family member can withdraw consent to the retention of the DNA or DNA profile information at any time.

In the case of only partial remains being located and identified, it is recommended the reference DNA profile remains on the database/s to assist with the identification of other remains that may be recovered in the future.

All family members will be provided with a consent form to read and sign prior to providing a family reference sample, which will have further detail on how, when and why their genetic information will be used.

Frequently asked questions

How many unidentified human remains and long-term missing persons are in Australia?

  • It is estimated there are approximately 500 unidentified human remains (UHR) and 2600 long-term missing persons in Australia.
  • These UHR are in the possession of State and Territory Police, mortuaries and forensic laboratories.
  • The initial phase of the Program will involve the State and Territory Police conducting an audit of all active UHR and long-term missing persons cases in each jurisdiction. This will provide an accurate account of the numbers of UHR and long-term missing persons in Australia

What types of forensic testing will be used in the program?

  • The UHR will be examined by a Forensic Anthropologist to develop a biological profile (i.e. age, sex, ancestry) and record trauma to assist with cause/manner of death determinations.
  • If teeth are present, UHR will be examined by a Forensic Odontologist and the dental charts will be compared to any dental charts from long-term missing persons.
  • If there are no dental matches, a bone sample from the UHR will proceed to DNA testing to generate DNA profile/s for comparison to DNA profile/s from the missing persons personal items or medical specimens, or their close biological relatives. If there are no state or national DNA matches, the DNA profiles can be searched internationally on the INTERPOL DNA database.
  • If there are no international DNA matches, the UHR will be considered for specialist forensic testing to aid investigations. This testing can be useful to estimate the year of birth and death, residence history and hair and eye colour, reconstruct the face or locate distant relatives of the unknown individual.

Where will the forensic testing occur?

  • The DNA testing will primarily be conducted at the AFP Forensic Facility in Majura, ACT.
  • The Program will also engage other forensic specialists or laboratories in Australia and/or overseas to conduct specialised forensic testing as required.

Why has this testing never occured before?

  • In some cases, UHR may never have been tested or tested only using the forensic techniques available at the time they were located. In other cases, UHR might have been tested with all available routine forensic techniques but still remain unidentified, so the application of new forensic techniques may provide investigative leads.
  • Forensic techniques are constantly evolving and unresolved unidentified and missing persons cases should be reviewed as they become available to determine if they could aid the investigation. For example, modern DNA techniques have evolved to a point where we are able to successfully extract and profile DNA from old and degraded UHR samples. Previously, this may not have been the case because of a limited quantity and/or quality of DNA in these samples, but due to improvements in the sensitivity of the technology, a DNA profile is now often obtainable.
  • This Program will use both routine and specialist forensic techniques to try to forensically examine and identify all UHR in Australia.
  • By taking a national approach we will ensure that all UHR are subjected to the latest forensic techniques by forensic specialists with the required expertise.

Will this program be able to identify all UHR?

  • The expectation is that not all UHR will be identified as a result of this National DNA Program.
  • DNA testing success will be dependent on the condition of the UHR and whether DNA is able to be recovered from the more challenging samples, and the availability of reference DNA samples from every long-term missing person or suitable biological relatives.
  • In the event routine DNA testing and matching is unsuccessful, other forensic techniques are being considered as part of this Program to provide investigative leads.

What support services are available to family members?

  • The AFP’s National Missing Persons Coordination Centre works closely with support agencies such as the NSW Family and Friends of Missing Persons Unit (FFMPU) who provide counselling and support to family members of missing persons.
  • Family advocacy networks such as Leave a Light On and the Missing Persons Advocacy Network (MPAN) also provide support for family members.
  • State and Territory Police also utilise Family Liaison Officers who help family members navigate the investigation process and subsequent outcomes.

 

Fact sheets

Media

All media enquiries should be directed to the AFP National Media team via email at [email protected] or call on 02 5126 9297.

Media releases regarding the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons will appear below as they become available.

Contact

For more information on the Program please contact the NMPCC via email: [email protected] or call 1800 000 634.

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