National DNA databank for missing persons up and running after years of delay

On Aug. 2 1993, 14-year-old Lindsey Nicholls went walking down a rural road in Vancouver Island’s Comox Valley. She was never heard from again. Her mother has new hope for answers in the case as Canada's national DNA databank begins accepting missing persons' DNA.

Lindsey's Law allotted money for databank expansion in 2014 but privacy, technical hurdles reared up

Judy Peterson (seated) signed consent forms Friday that allow the DNA of her missing daughter, Lindsey Nicholls, into the expanded federal databank as Lindsey's sister, Kim Nicholls, looked on. (handout via Missing Children Society of Canada)

On Aug. 2 1993, 14-year-old Lindsey Nicholls went walking down a rural road in Vancouver Island's Comox Valley. That was the last anyone saw of her.

Her mother, Judy Peterson, believes her daughter was hitchhiking. Police believe she met with foul play, she says.

"She vanished," Peterson said. "They believe she was abducted, I'm sure."

Lindsey Nicholls was last seen on Vancouver Island when she was 14 years old, in 1993. (RCMP)

Nearly 25 years later, she now has new hope for answers as Lindsey's Law comes into effect.

The law expands Canada's national DNA databank to include DNA from missing persons across the country, such as from personal effects like toothbrushes or clothing. It will also include DNA profiles from relatives and unidentified human remains.

Peterson signed the consent forms to add Lindsey's DNA into the databank on Friday, making her daughter's the first missing person DNA to be included.

"It's almost unbelievable. We've waited so long," she said. "It's a big step for me."

Peterson is confident that as the databank grows and receives DNA from families and crime scenes, it will help solve cases like her daughter's.

She also is hopeful that the expansion could lead to arrests and charges in missing persons cases.

Long delays

DNA technology has been used in criminal cases for nearly 30 years but efforts to expand the databank have seen mired by delays.

Regulators say the long delay in setting up the databank was to deal with privacy and technical issues around the collection and use of DNA.

With the popularity of shows like CSI, Peterson says her "TV brain" assumed the databank must have always collected DNA of missing persons like Lindsey.

Judy Peterson (right) says the announcement of Lindsey's Law has been 18 years in the making. She saw the campaign through countless ministers' tenure and unexpected delays. (CBC)

But in 2000, Peterson found out she was wrong. Thus, she said, began 18 years of lobbying for the databank's expansion.

"I've been through seven public safety ministers. When I started, they were still solicitor generals," she said.

In 2014, the federal government committed $8 million to expand the database so coroners, medical examiners and police could centralize their DNA indexes.

Peterson says her hope is that other families are spared some of the pain that hers has endured.

"It's the comfort of knowing ... that everything possible is being done to find her and get answers," she said.

About the Author

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is a journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten.

With files from Greg Rasmussen