Dáil Éireann - Volume 575 - 26 November, 2003
Mr. McGuinness Mr. McGuinness
Mr. McGuinness:The issue of missing persons is one in which I have taken an interest since 1996, based on the disappearance of Jo Jo Dollard from the Callan, County Kilkenny, area of my constituency. It is not an issue which is confined to a small number of people. Naturally, the families concerned are the ones dealing with this situation on a day-to-day basis, suffering endless trauma and sadness because they have not found the missing persons or their bodies. It also affects the extended families and there is huge public interest in this issue.
 I draw the attention of the Minister of State to the recent launch of a new crime magazine which has proven to be a huge success. Its first issue focused on the issue of missing persons. At a recent book launch of a publication entitled Searching, written by Valerie Cox, which outlined all of the issues concerning this matter and dealt with the number of people who have gone missing, 5,000 copies of that book were recorded as sold at or before the launch. That confirms the huge public interest in the matter. In my constituency, a monument has been erected in Kilkenny Castle to remind people of this issue. The attendants at the castle will confirm that there is great interest in that monument, as borne out by the number of messages and other tokens which are left in the vicinity to highlight the issue and support the families affected.
By comparison, the inaction of the State is a matter of concern. It took a visit by the family of Jo Jo Dollard to New York and Washington to highlight what is best practice there as a basis for a request to the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take an active interest in this issue by initiating a training programme in this regard for some of the younger members of the Garda. It is possible to avail of the Jerry McCabe Foundation in New York or the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, located near Washington, which are more than willing to help with computer software and training at little or no cost.
I understand the Garda has recently decided to participate in this – but only because Mary Phelan and the Dollard family brought this to its attention. It took 18 months to get agreement from the Garda to participate in a website covering 13 other countries. I pose the question as to whether the authorities will learn from what happened in Soham and what is best practice in the UK. Will they take on board the excellent work undertaken by Hillary Clinton in the United States and begin to discuss with all of those agencies and individuals a possible model of best practice for this country?
I appreciate that not every system used abroad can be applied here. However, it should be possible to take the case of Jo Jo Dollard as a starting point for developing new concepts, technology and training for a young police force. That model should be used with a view to establishing what can be achieved in this country. In many other jurisdictions, there is an ongoing system in place to remind the public of what a person who went missing some years ago might look like at present. That is not being done in this country. No effort is being made through organisations, schools, or Garda stations throughout the country as a reminder of the 35 to 45 people currently listed as missing in Ireland. Little or no effort is being made in that regard.
A campaign is currently under way to have the helpline kept in place and funded. It costs approximately €40,000 to €50,000 per year and even that is under threat – I understand it is being reviewed. I ask the Minister of State and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to take on board the concerns which have been expressed, taking account of what is on offer from America and the UK and begin negotiations to establish to what extent it can be applied throughout the police force. I do not believe it would cost a huge amount of money.
In America, there is a public private partnership in place, whereby public companies, such as those in the computer industry, will fund the required hardware and software to record details of missing persons, access websites and publicise that information. There are separate organisations, also funded through public private partnerships, which offer ongoing information by way of milk cartons or postal handouts to local communities in various states, highlighting detailed profiles of missing persons and how they would now look. That approach has had huge success.
The request now being made requires a simple step forward. Although it may be a difficult task, I ask for a further review of the situation and the funding which can be put in place so that we can begin to help families which experience trauma and sadness every day of their lives. Little or nothing has been done. I make a special appeal for this case to be heard.
Mr. B. Lenihan Mr. B. Lenihan
Mr. B. Lenihan:I thank the Deputy for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is well aware of his interest in this important subject. I am deputising this evening for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who is attending a meeting of EU Justice and Home Affairs Ministers in Brussels. The Minister has asked me to assure the Deputy that he shares his concern and that of the public in general with regard to missing persons.
The establishment of a national missing persons unit has been suggested from time to time and the matter is kept under continuous review by the Garda authorities. There are substantial arguments for and against such a proposal. At present, local Garda management takes direct responsibility for missing person cases and special investigation teams are appointed as necessary. When a person is reported missing, the local Garda superintendent takes direct responsibility for the investigation and appoints an investigation team which includes any specialised unit deemed necessary, such as, for example, the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation or the Garda Technical Bureau.
The Garda authorities have assured the Minister that every effort is made to locate all missing persons and that they consider the current procedures for dealing with missing persons to be adequate. As I have said, the procedures are kept under constant review. Their view, as has been proved through experience, is that while specialist units prove very useful in investigating certain types of crime, missing persons cases, by their nature, require specific local knowledge about the area where they occur and the circumstances of the person who is missing. Local Garda officers also have available to them, as required, the services of all the specialist units and manpower which are part of the overall Garda organisation structure.
The Garda Síochána participates fully with all of the media outlets in highlighting cases involving missing persons. All cases of persons reported missing in suspicious circumstances are subject to ongoing review and investigation. The services of other agencies such as Interpol and Europol are also available to assist in the investigation. In addition, every Garda district has a specially trained search team which is familiar with the locality. The missing persons bureau at Garda headquarters is responsible for maintaining data relating to missing persons.
All files on missing persons remain open and under continuous review until the person is located, or, in the case of a missing person who is presumed drowned, a verdict to that effect is issued by the coroner. The Garda authorities are continually monitoring international developments with regard to investigations of missing persons in order to ensure that best practice is followed. If it is their professional judgment that some change in the existing legislation or protocols would be of assistance in improving investigations, the Minister will of course carefully consider any constructive proposals from them.
The Minister is aware of the research conducted by the Deputy. The Garda authorities maintain close links with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and Deputy Commissioner Peter Fitzgerald is chair of the Jerry McCabe Foundation which operates an exchange programme with the Garda Síochána and the NYPD, in conjunction with the college. The foundation is partly funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Garda authorities have entered into discussions with the John Jay authorities with a view to exploring the possibility of exchanges of personnel with missing persons expertise.
In the area of legislation, the House will be aware that last summer the Minister published the general scheme of a criminal justice Bill with reference to new Garda powers of investigation which, when enacted, will improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in a number of specified areas. These provisions are of particular interest in missing persons cases. The proposals provide for longer powers of detention in Garda custody, the strengthening of Garda powers regarding the preservation of the scene of a crime, the introduction of new powers on the issuing of search warrants in certain circumstances and the strengthening of the law on DNA sampling. The issue of the establishment of a DNA databank is under examination by the Law Reform Commission and its report is awaited. The commission's recommendations will be carefully considered by the Minister with a view to possible incorporation in the Bill.
The disappearance of any person can be traumatic for their family and friends. For this reason, the Minister is anxious to assist them in any way he can. The Deputy referred to the missing persons helpline, which has been operating since October 2002. This is a dedicated helpline operated by Victim Support as a counselling and referral service and it serves as a primary point of contact for the families of missing persons.
The helpline provides advice and psychological support for families of missing persons as well as structured liaison with the Garda Síochána. A total of €65,000 was made available to it by the Minister in 2002 and a further €45,000 in 2003. An evaluation of the project is currently under way and is being carried out by the department of social science at the Dublin Institute of Technology. The Minister expects to receive this report early in the new year.
Dáil Éireann 575 Missing Persons.