ABSTRACT: The subject of missing persons is of great concern to the community with numerous associated emotional, financial, and health costs. This paper examines the forensic medical issues raised by the delayed identification of individuals classified as “missing” and highlights the importance of including dental data in the investigation of missing persons. Focusing on Australia, the current approaches employed in missing persons investigations are outlined. Of particular significance is the fact that each of the eight Australian states and territories has its own Missing Persons Unit that operates within distinct state and territory legislation. Consequently, there is a lack of uniformity within Australia about the legal and procedural framework within which investigations of missing persons are conducted, and the interaction of that framework with coronial law procedures. One of the main investigative problems in missing persons investigations is the lack of forensic medical, particularly, odontological input. Forensic odontology has been employed in numerous cases in Australia where identity is unknown or uncertain because of remains being skeletonized, incinerated, or partly burnt. The routine employment of the forensic odontologist to assist in missing person inquiries, has however, been ignored. The failure to routinely employ forensic odontology in missing persons inquiries has resulted in numerous delays in identification. Three Australian cases are presented where the investigation of individuals whose identity was uncertain or unknown was prolonged due to the failure to utilize the appropriate (and available) dental resources.
In light of the outcomes of these cases, we suggest that a national missing persons dental records database be established for future missing persons investigations. Such a database could be easily managed between a coronial system and a forensic medical institute. In Australia, a national missing persons dental records database could be incorporated into the National Coroners Information System (NCIS) managed, on behalf of Australia's Coroners, by the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. The existence of the NCIS would ensure operational collaboration in the implementation of the system and cost savings to Australian policing agencies involved in missing person inquiries. The implementation of such a database would facilitate timely and efficient reconciliation of clinical and postmortem dental records and have subsequent social and financial benefits.