Dáil debates

Wednesday, 26 January 2005

Community Workers' Co-operative.

Missing Persons Unit.

9:00 pm

Photo of John McGuinnessJohn McGuinness (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fianna Fail)
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Given the timing of this motion I wish to extend my sympathies to the Holohan family in Midleton on their recent tragedy and to thank the Garda Síochána for the huge effort put into the search for Robert Holohan. I also thank the public who turned out in great numbers on a daily basis to assist the Army, the Garda and the family in that search.

I also wish to highlight what is not being done. I acknowledge the work of the Taoiseach and his support for many of the families in question. Political will on the part of the Minister is required to herald a change in Government policy because I am aware he is not in favour of a special missing persons' unit. I ask that such a policy is reviewed and that the finances necessary to support a special unit within the Garda are made available. That unit could be run according to best practice as it applies in America. A connection exists with the John Jay College in New York as a result of the Jerry McCabe fellowship. I visited that college a year ago and was told that an exchange programme could be put in place to train the Garda in best practice when searching for missing persons and in engaging with their families in order to continue that search. Some officers have been trained but it gives me no joy to say that not enough is being done.

The centre for exploited and missing children is funded by both private and public moneys and supported by the FBI. Members of the FBI work with the staff on a 24-seven basis. Much could be learned from this centre. The centre has offered to share its technology and experience, free of charge, with the Garda. I suggest this offer be availed of.

I suggested to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and to the former Garda Commissioner who is now retired that the case of Jo-Jo Dollard could be used as a model case for the required special unit so that a model of best practice in Irish terms could be created. This will not cost the State a fortune and it would deal directly with the families concerned.

An examination of unsolved cases would show they do not have a public profile from a Garda perspective. In the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe and the United States such cases are kept alive through constant reminders to the public of what a missing person would look like one year, five years, ten years and so forth after he or she went missing. While I was in Washington, a child who went missing at the age of four years was found at 14 years of age solely as a result of the persistence of law enforcement agencies and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In the case of Ireland nothing has happened.

Political will is needed, as has been shown by Senator Hillary Clinton in New York, who has sponsored various protocols, including Code Adam and Amber Alert, signed into law by President Bush. There is no reason we cannot benefit from the experience of the United States. In the recent case involving two children, Holly and Jessica, in Soham in England, the police brought in best practice from outside the jurisdiction, applied it and solved the case.

A large number of missing Irish people are acknowledged as missing on the Garda website. Their families are deeply concerned and traumatised and must face the issue on a daily basis. It gives me no pleasure to say that the response of the Garda Commissioner and the Minister is unsatisfactory. In the modern day and age, with society changing rapidly, we need to change our approach to this problem.

I acknowledge the website for the missing, www.missingkids.ie. While it is a step in the right direction, it is a long way from being the completed process. I urge the Minister to involve himself politically in this matter and bring about a change in policy with appropriate funding. This would satisfy the families whose members have gone missing and would prepare us for future missing cases.

Photo of Tony KilleenTony Killeen (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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I am deputising this evening for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and I am aware of his interest in this subject. I assure the Deputy that the Minister shares his concern and that of the public with regard to missing persons.

As the House is aware, the establishment of a national missing persons unit has been suggested from time to time and the matter is kept under ongoing review by the Garda authorities. There are arguments for and against such a proposal.

At present, local Garda management takes direct responsibility for missing persons 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 to include any specialised unit deemed necessary, for example, the national bureau of criminal investigation or the 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. The procedures are kept under constant review.

The view of the Garda Síochána, which has been gained through experience, is that while specialist units prove extremely 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 and background of the person who is missing.

The Garda Síochána participates fully with all the media outlets, print, radio and television, in highlighting cases involving missing persons, as appropriate. All cases of persons reported missing in suspicious circumstances are subject to ongoing review and investigation. The services of other external 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 that is familiar with the locality.

The missing persons bureau in 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 pronounced by the coroner.

The Garda authorities continuously monitor international developments with regard to investigations of missing persons to ensure that best practice is followed. If their professional judgment is that some change in the existing legislation or protocols would be of assistance in improving investigations, the Minister would carefully consider same.

The Minister is aware of research previously conducted by the Deputy regarding missing persons investigations by the authorities in the United States. As was outlined to the House previously, Garda authorities maintain close links with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. The McCabe fellowship foundation was established in 1996 and provides for the regular exchange of personnel from the Garda Síochána with the New York police department. Since its foundation three gardaí have completed an MA in criminology and one completed an MA in forensic psychology at John Jay College, New York. To date 45 participants from the Garda Síochána and 22 from the New York police department have completed the programme. The exchange programme is based on a two-week period and provides for opportunities to identify best practice regarding policing requirements for the two organisations. The Garda authorities are exploring the possibility of exchanges of personnel with missing persons expertise.

It is every parent's worst nightmare to discover that his or her child has gone missing. Thankfully, the majority of missing children cases reported to the Garda authorities are successfully resolved. The Department functions as the central authority for Ireland in implementing The Hague and Luxembourg conventions which operate to secure the speedy return of an abducted child to its habitual residence, where the courts can decide how the child's best interest can be served.

In September last year the Minister launched the missing children's website, www.missingkids.ie. This is a joint initiative between the Garda Síochána and the International Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. This website enables the Garda Síochána to circulate instantaneouslyand internationally written details and high quality photographs of children reported missing to other police forces.

In the area of legislation, the House will be aware that the Minister published the Criminal Justice Bill outlining 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 with regard to DNA sampling.

The disappearance of any person is traumatic for family and friends. For this reason, the Minister is anxious to assist in any way he can. The Deputy will be aware of the missing persons helpline, which has been operating since October 2002. This is a dedicated helpline which is operated by Victim Support as a counselling and referral service and 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.

The Minister is completely satisfied that the Garda does its utmost with regard to missing persons cases and that current procedures are in line with international best practices.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 January 2005.