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National DNA bank won't be as effective as U.S. counterpart, critics say

06/11/2015 01:19 EDT | Updated 06/11/2016 05:59 EDT
It took one Facebook message and three days for a U.S. family to get American authorities to do a DNA comparison on an unidentified corpse in California.

But here in Canada, it took Barb Desjarlais almost three years and a CBC investigation to do the same. Critics say a highly-touted national DNA databank that's expected to be in place in Canada by 2017 may not improve things because local jurisdictions will still have to foot the bill. 

"As long as they have to put a dollar value on the chances of a match, it [could] hold them back," said J.Todd Matthews, a national director of the Texas-based National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. "And that's the frustrating part. They don't want to sit there and have a case that's potentially solveable in their lab."

Barb Desjarlais's 3-year wait 

Barb Desjarlais's mother, Audrey Desjarlais, went missing from her Steinbach, Man., home more than three years ago. 

In June 2012, Winnipeg police pulled a body from the Red River, east of the city. Barb Desjarlais suspected it was her mother – and with good reason.

The remains matched her mother in height, build and age. The police sketch of the Jane Doe bore a striking resemblance to her mother. And then, of course, there was the necklace found on the body.

"It was a dolphin necklace, I knew that necklace," Desjarlais told the CBC. "I had the matching ring. My mom gave it to me when I was 15 or something."

But Winnipeg Police refused to authorize a DNA test, in part because they had witnesses who claimed Audrey Desjarlais was seen alive and well after the remains were pulled from the river.

That all changed last month when the CBC told Barb's story. As a result, police approved the DNA test, which now confirms that it was her mother.

3-day wait for U.S. family

During the same time frame in the U.S., the family of a long-missing woman, Diana Smith, also suspected they'd finally found their lost loved one. Smith was 19 when she was last seen in 1991. She was rumoured to have taken off with a trucker.

In 2013, a family friend contacted Todd Matthews of NamUs via Facebook with a simple request. "I have a question," it read. "There is a missing person from Ohio and we can't get a police report because she was an adult when she went missing.....the family wants to know if they can give DNA of their own to see if it matches any unknown Jane Does in NamUs?"

Within an hour, Matthews responded: "It can be a joint effort. Family tells us where to look — we have someone make the request direct form the office."

Within days, the family found a profile of a Jane Doe in California that sparked their interest. She was roughly the same height and build. And, like Audrey Desjarlais, she had a necklace on her that matched other jewelry in the family.

Three days later, a DNA test was performed and within weeks,  they'd made a positive ID – Diana Smith was the Jane Doe. She'd been shot dead at a truck stop more than 20 years ago. 

"It sure didn't take long before we knew for sure it was Diana Smith," Matthews said from his Texas office. "Usually if we have a presumptive ID, it usually happens."

Those kind of quick decisions come because they have the financial freedom to make them. NamUs operates with grants from the Department of Justice. This year, two grants of approximately $3 million each cover the costs of conducting DNA and other forensic identification tests from coast-to-coast, plus the salaries of the 25 staff members who oversee the program. 

Drawbacks to Canada's DNA databank, says U.S. expert

Canada's DNA databank for missing persons and unidentified remains is expected to be fully in place by 2017, with a price tag of $8.1 million. But it will not include additional grant money to help jurisdictions cover the costs of DNA testing. As a result, critics say the chances are that it won't be populated with as many samples as it could be. And with fewer samples in the system, chances of finding matches decrease too.

It's a concern that the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police raised to the federal government, but to no avail. It's also of concern to Todd Matthews, who said the more DNA samples in Canada's files, the more likely that U.S. counterparts could benefit, too. And vice versa.

"I can see a point in time where Canada gets developed to the point where they have access like we have," Matthews said. "Because there's no doubt about it. You have some of our missing persons as bodies in your country. Some of your missing are bodies in our country. And if you don't know if they're living or dead, how can you move on? It is a huge tragedy."

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