‘Systemic deficiencies’ in NSW police caused unnecessary trauma for families of missing persons, forensic scientists state

Thirty-four years after the death of teenager Ursula Barwick, NSW’s deputy forensic scientists have found that the NSW police’s investigation into her disappearance was “inadequate and ineffective and caused further and unnecessary trauma to Ursula’s family members”.

Forensic pathologist Derek Lee described “systemic deficiencies” that persisted for more than three decades in NSW police, leaving Ursula’s family without the answers they desperately sought.

“It’s justification. Officially, they did not do their job,” Ursula’s stepmother Liz Barwick said outside court today.

Ursula’s father Peter Barwick died suddenly in October 2020, but Liz said her husband would feel angry but relieved.

“It’s over now, but it does not change the 29 years of wonder and look before we found out.”

A mature couple sits at a table and looks through a folder of papers
Peter and Liz fought for decades for answers to Ursula’s disappearance.(Australian History: Winsome Denyer)

Ursula Barwick was 17 when she was last seen by her family in late spring 1987 on a train at Tuggerah on the Central Coast, on her way to a new job and a great adventure in Sydney.

And then she disappeared.

“Never in our wildest dreams when she got on that train did we ever think it would be the last time we actually saw her,” her father Peter told Australian Story in 2018.

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Ursula Barwick boarded a train bound for Sydney and was never seen by her family again.

Ursula’s family and friends were thrown into a nightmarish world of panic and fear that all the families of the missing know so well.

“It’s a grief you can not explain,” said her aunt Dianne Panov.

“Is she dead or is she alive? Is she coming home? Isn’t she? It’s a really hard way to live.”

Ursula’s family and friends endured 29 years of pain before police finally discovered she had died in a car accident just weeks after being reported missing.

Forensic scientist Lee acknowledged that the inadequate and ineffective investigation into Ursula’s case had caused the family unnecessary distress.

Ursula’s mother Cheree died in 2004 without knowing the truth about her daughter’s fate, as the case could have been resolved before.

“It made me pretty sad,” Dianne said in response to this morning’s results.

“When Cheree was dying, those responsible knew she was dying and did not contact her.”

But Ursula’s family is not alone.

Ursula’s case was one of four missing persons examined under the microscope at the investigation of Deputy Forensic Medicine Derek Lee.

Gary Jones was 27 when he disappeared in November 1990, Christof Meier disappeared in 2002 and Lionel Daveson disappeared in 2007.

Like Ursula, their remains were not matched with their missing persons, and the fate of all three men remained a mystery for years.

Coroner Lee found that all four cases highlighted a single and recurring theme of functional deficiencies in the NSW Missing Persons Unit prior to 2018.

He noted that these shortcomings “contributed to inadequate, inefficient and in some cases a complete absence of investigation for extended periods at the local command level”.

Like Ursula’s case, Gary Jones’ mother, Merrilee Jones, died before his remains were identified 13 years after his death.

“It’s devastating to know that there was an opportunity to give Merrilee this certainty before her passing,” forensic scientist Lee said.

A 1980s photograph of a teenage girl lying on a picnic rug
Ursula was only 17 when she disappeared.(Delivered: Barwick family)

‘Significant deficiencies’ in cases of missing persons

Despite many reviews of the NSW Missing Persons unit over the past 10 years, Coroner Lee noted that not much was done to address the ongoing shortcomings.

This included the role and functions of the unit being poorly defined and misunderstood in the police force, poor communication, insufficient resources, resulting in staff being limited to superficial tasks, and a lack of recognition of the importance of forensic evidence gathering and techniques.

“This resulted in wasted opportunities to gather evidence … long periods of inactivity during investigations, and an inability to keep both the officers responsible and the families properly informed,” forensic scientist Lee said.

These shortcomings have been acknowledged by the NSW Police Chief.

Forensic pathologist Lee reported that the commissioner acknowledged “the investigation into each disappearance and presumed death involved significant errors, [and] there was a more general lack of oversight of the investigation of missing persons at both local and state level “.

Barwick siblings
11-year-old Ursula with her younger siblings Andrew and Kate.(Delivered: Barwick family)

Since these cases were uncovered, NSW police have established a new register of missing persons and standard operating procedures for cases of missing persons, which the forensic pathologist says has largely addressed many of the shortcomings identified during the investigation.

However, forensic scientist Lee said there was still room for further improvement, outlining five recommendations to SW Police, which included revising the standard operating procedures on an annual basis, reviewing key performance indicators for missing persons cases and ongoing training in obtaining and using DNA samples. .

The inspector also recommended that consideration be given to engaging in the national DNA program for unidentified and missing persons, launched by the Australian Federal Police in July 2020.

NSW police said they were “reviewing the results” and “considering all recommendations”.

“Significant work has been done by the NSW Police Force to improve the organization’s response to missing persons investigations, including the dissolution of the Missing Persons Unit following a detailed review in 2019,” a NSW Police spokesman said.

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Investigation ‘does not make grief easier’

NSW police took 29 years to solve Ursula’s case, and then it took another five years before the coronal process was completed.

Help finding Ursula
Police used age development technology to try to find Ursula.(Delivered)

Dianne Panov said the coronal process had been as tough as looking for her niece Ursula.

“I was really happy that the forensic pathologist highlighted the impact on the families, because I think that’s what was forgotten throughout the process. These people who disappear are part of a loving family.

“It just threw me into that grief again. It doesn’t make it any easier.”

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