Solving Cold Cases

Call-out for dental records for the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons. Australian dentists are being asked to go through their records to help provide closure for families of long-term missing persons.

Our Association

You’ll likely be familiar with the ADAWA emails requesting dental records. These emails are highly successful, and usually quickly find dental records required for local, contemporary deaths. Now, dentists are being asked to go through their records to help provide closure for families of long-term missing persons nationally.

In July 2020, the Australian Federal Police’s National Missing Persons Coordination Centre launched the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons, with the aim of identifying unidentified human remains, and solving long-term missing-persons cases.

We spoke to two members of the forensic odontology team who work with Missing Persons in investigating dental data that has been received: Dr Helen Vaughan and Dr Jenny Ball.

The value of dental records

As the name of the National DNA Program for Unidentified and Missing Persons would suggest, the program has a strong DNA focus. However, forensic odontology provides quick identification when fingerprints are not present, which is why having dental records in the National Missing Person database is so valuable.

“When remains are found it is often all bone, and if the remains have been out in the sun for a long time, the DNA is degraded,” Jenny explains. “Often all you have is bone with teeth.”

“You don’t always get the lower jaw because they often get separated once the tendons and soft tissues have gone, so we often just get an upper jaw,” Helen adds. “We’ll examine the jaw and take x-rays and make notes of everything about those teeth and supporting structures.”

Information from dentists

Someone is classed as a long-term missing person once they have been reported missing for more than three months. Helen implores dentists to please check their records for names on the list on page 32, in the hope of providing families with closure. “I understand that we are all at the point where we don’t open half our emails,” she says. “But what we really want people to do is look through their old records and see if they have information on this group of people, because that will give us information that could well be the thing that identifies people when remains are found.”

Although digital data is typically easy to find because it is on file or archived, Helen says even if a practice has limited older records, the information can be very valuable. Helpful information may include:

  • X-rays
  • Clinical notes
  • Referral letters
  • OPG reports
  • Models
  • 3D scans

She says even a record that says the person came in just once and had a tooth extracted can give valuable information. “If the notes say something like they had their 36 extracted but it was noted that their 37 had an amalgam filling that needed repairing, then it may be that we find something where all that fits in.” 

“We had a lady that went missing some time ago and we don’t have her dental records, but the wife of the dentist, who was the dental receptionist, remembered that the missing lady had a huge amount of crown and bridge work done,” Jenny adds. “Having that information is enough to be helpful, because if we found someone that only had one or two fillings, we could say it wasn’t her. It could be 99 other people, but we would know it isn’t her, and excluding someone is just as important as being able to say it might be someone.”

Even anecdotal information can be valuable. “We tend to remember our really nice patients or our really difficult patients,” Helen says. “However, if someone at the practice remembers Joe Bloggs ‘because we did all those root canals and he didn’t want to pay’, even that anecdotal memory can help to put a piece in the jigsaw.”

Any information can help to identify someone and provide answers to families with missing relatives.

“We would be so grateful if you could find some time to have a look through your records and provide anything, no matter how small and how insignificant you may think it is,” Helen says.

“Everyone is entitled to have their name when they pass. You have your identity in life; you are entitled to have your identity when you die. If someone passes away and they are not able to be identified, or if someone goes missing, their loved ones cannot get on with their lives; there is no closure. We need that closure as human beings to complete the grieving process and to be able to move forward.

“With the information from this program, when remains do turn up, we can look nationally to be able to identify these people and give them back to their families.”

Spread the word

Even if you do not have records for the group of long-term missing persons listed, you can still assist the program by spreading the word to your colleagues and patients.

If a patient tells you about a missing family member, tell them about the program. Families of missing persons are encouraged to come forward and register with the program so WA Police have current information, records and samples. 

“Sometimes your dentist may be the person you have told about your missing loved one if you have come into the practice and had a bad day,” Helen says. “We want families of missing persons to know about this program.”

Missing Persons List

Do you have any information on the following missing persons? Dental records or anecdotal information could assist.

If you have dental records

Do you have any records or information that you think might help in a missing persons case?

Detective Sergeant Jude Seivwright,

For more information about the program, go to:

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