Why the Missing Persons Unit needed to change

Coroner Derek Lee, who investigated the case last year and three other missing person inquiries between 1987 and 2007, said: “In many ways, the investigation reflects a number of significant and systemic deficiencies associated with missing person investigations more broadly, and that have persisted for over three decades. ”

Ursula’s aunt Dianne Panov sat through the three-week hearing at the State Coroner’s Court in Lidcombe. “People did not care enough to look for our Ursula,” she said. “We were country people and Cheree and I believed that things were being done in the background.

“We were very naive about processes back then. The police did not interview us. They said, “She’s just a runaway, she’ll come back. I am optimistic after getting to hear all I heard and getting to know Glen Browne that things will improve. ”

DCI Browne, who was not involved in the Barwick case but attended the investigation, said: “Things went wrong, I readily admitted that. My job is to prevent those things happening in the future.

“If a child is 20 minutes late home from school it may well be that they have dropped off at a friend’s place but it might also mean, as has happened in the past, that they have been abducted and they are already gone. This is the difficulty we face all the time. Do you call out the cavalry? Do you call out the helicopters, the SES and the police dogs and the drones?

“It may be someone who has been missing dozens of times before but never comes back on that final occasion. It’s not easy to always get it right but I’d like to think now we are jumping into a much more appropriate response, much more quickly than we did in the past. ”

‘I dropped everything when Dan disappeared’

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It is called ambiguous loss. It leaves a person searching for answers and complicates and delays the grieving process.

Loren O’Keefe who started the Missing Persons Advocacy Network had personal experience. Her brother Daniel, 24, went missing at their home in Geelong, Victoria in 2011. His remains were found under the house by their father, in 2016.

Loren O’Keefe with her missing brother Dan.

She says that throughout the process it became very clear that there was a huge gap in support for families in the same situation, especially long-term missing persons.

“I was learning from the research that when one person is reported missing at least 12 other people are directly affected, and that’s a conservative number,” she said.

“There were a huge number of Australians out there not getting the support they needed and I founded the Network in 2013 to address that gap and to humanize missing persons beyond their vital stats that they are typically reduced to in a poster and also to alleviate the practical, emotional, administrative and psychological impact on their loved one.

“I dropped everything when Dan disappeared, I was in my mid-20s I did not have any major commitments in my life. People were learning about our story and coming to me and saying look, my son is missing or whoever it was, I need help. For the last 10 years I have been putting myself out there to try and help these families, as much as one person without funding can do. ”

Outstanding cases

Elaine Johnson, 16, missing February 1, 1980 left her home in Kurnell is believed to have met with her friend Kerry Joel who also went missing on the same day.

Tony Jones, 20, missing November 3, from Perth, was on a six-month backpacking tour was at the end of his holiday in North Queensland.

Gordana Kotevski, 16, missing November 24, 1994 last seen at Charlestown. A white 4WD was seen in the area at the time.

Michelle Pope, 18, missing August 25, 1978 with boyfriend Stephen Lapthorne, 21, traveling in lime green Bedford van from West Pymble on route to Michelle’s home in Berowra.

Janine Vaughan, 31, missing December 7, 2001 seen around 4am in Keppel Street, Bathurst. She was seen to enter the front passenger seat of a bright red four door medium size sedan.

The foundation of the organization is a missing persons guide which has a checklist of things the family can do, templates for media releases, contact databases for every hospital in Australia, every homelessness service provider and more.


Ms O’Keefe says it is about empowering a family when they are typically overwhelmed by a sense of complete and utter helplessness and hopelessness. Because of the number of missing cases she can only work with families once their case becomes longer term, thankfully rare.

Then a variety of support can kick in including legal advisors, billboard companies and psychologists trained in ambiguous loss. There are retired detectives and OSINT (Open Source Intelligence) experts able to become involved in the more practical things around search.

“Mental health professionals around the world consider ambiguous loss to be the most traumatic type of grief and the most unmanageable type of stress because it is continual and human beings aren’t programmed to cope well with uncertainty,” she says. “Some of them consider ambiguous loss over an extended period to have a similar effect to PTSD.

“These families are living in limbo, day in day out, imagining what may or may not have happened to their loved ones.

“In time-sensitive cases where parents are approaching the end of their lives that pressure on the siblings is enormous because they want to give their parents resolution.”

As an unfunded charity, she adds: “We are really hopeful that it will not be too far away that our Federal Government steps up as well as the corporate sector to recognize the enormous impact that this issue is having on thousands of families like Niamh’s .

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