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Sunday 26 March 2017

Jo Jo: did the nation fail her?

This week there was a plea to put pictures of Jo Jo Dollard - missing 20 years this week - on milk cartons. Should we be doing more to trace Ireland's lost souls?

Reaching out: Sculptor Ann Mulrooney (right) with John McGuinness TD, Jo Jo Dollard's sister, Mary Phelan and Mary McAleese at the unveiling in 2002 of a monument for missing persons in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Reaching out: Sculptor Ann Mulrooney (right) with John McGuinness TD, Jo Jo Dollard's sister, Mary Phelan and Mary McAleese at the unveiling in 2002 of a monument for missing persons in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Plea: Jo Jo Dollard disappeared in 1995

Graham Clifford

In the early years Kathleen Bergin, sister of Jo Jo Dollard, held on to the hope that the then 21-year-old would walk through the door and the family's nightmare would be over. But this week, as they gathered to remember Jo Jo on the 20th anniversary of her disappearance, the realisation that their beloved sister will not return is now all too real.

"You hear stories around the world of people, who have been missing for years, turning up… to be honest though, were that to happen, it would be a miracle," said Kathleen this week.

The family has been critical of how the investigation into Jo Jo's disappearance has been conducted.

The last known location of Jo Jo Dollard was when she made a phone call from a phone box in Moone, Co Kildare. She had been hitch-hiking while travelling home to Callan in Kilkenny from Dublin on the evening of November 9, 1995.

"Incredibly, news of Jo Jo's disappearance didn't go national until four days after she went missing," explains Kathleen. "The last sighting was on the Thursday evening and the gardaí in Baltinglass, who led the investigation locally, didn't find out about it until the following Monday.

"The immediate hours and days after someone goes missing are crucial, but they were lost and once they are gone, you can never get them back. I think most of the gardaí involved did their best within the limitations of what they were allowed to do but by the time they started investigating Jo Jo's disappearance, it was too late."

Two decades on, missing persons cases appear to be given increased priority in Ireland - but does the state offer the necessary resources to investigate and resolve the thousands of cases of disappearance they encounter each year?

Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness thinks not. This week he called for dairy supplier Avonmore to print pictures and details of missing people on their milk cartons - as has been the practice in the United States for years.

"Many families of missing loved ones feel abandoned by the State," he says. "We have the resources but there's a general lack of focus by the gardaí. Over the years, offers of specialist investigative assistance have been made by the likes of the Jerry McCabe Fellowship and the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children in America, but the gardaí are refusing to look beyond their borders to accept vital help."

"There's a lack of initiative from the Gardaí when it comes to missing persons," he adds. "Families set up their own social media campaigns but often they feel they're on their own. Why are disappearances not re-enacted locally, why are lands not being searched? Avonmore has agreed to speak with me about my proposal but really this should be led by the gardaí."

In 2014 there were 9,179 reports of missing people, according to the gardaí - up from 7,753 a year earlier and a large increase on the 3,987 reports of missing persons lodged in 2003. While some reports in any given year can relate to the same person, the numbers are still startling.

"When you consider our relatively small population, it's a very large figure," ­admits Fr Aquinas Duffy, who runs the missingpersons.ie website.

While the majority of missing persons cases are resolved in the days after a disappearance is reported, many have remained open for years. Seventeen people reported missing in 2014 have not been located and there are still hundreds of unresolved missing person cases in the State.

Indeed the names of Annie McCarrick, Jo Jo Dollard, Fiona Pender, Ciara Breen, Fiona Sinnott, Deirdre Jacob, Trevor Deely and Philip Cairns, amongst others, are ingrained on the national psyche. All young people who went missing without a trace.

While the gardaí set up the 'Operation Trace' task force to focus on the disappearance of young women in Leinster's 'Vanishing Triangle' in the mid-to-late nineties, the cases are still unresolved.

"Its all a case of resources," explains Fr Duffy. "The work of the cold case units is welcomed in looking back over long-term missing person's cases but there is only so much they can do.

"The number of outstanding cases is overwhelming and we can't expect local gardaí to continue to investigate these cases on their own. In saying that, I believe our rate of resolving missing cases persons cases is in line with other developed countries with similar populations, but that's of little comfort to the families who are still yearning for a breakthrough."

Fr Duffy told the Review that he had previously asked Glanbia, owners of Avonmore, if they would print pictures of missing persons on their products but the commercial cost was deemed excessive.

"I support the calls for these pictures to be printed on milk cartons," he says. "Those responsible for the disappearance of some people, or those who are withholding vital information, don't want these cases to have publicity. The more that can be done to highlight these cases increases the chances of a positive outcome."

It was in 1984 that dairy companies in the United States started to print pictures of missing children on their milk cartons. Indeed the images also appeared on pizza boxes, grocery bags and on junk mail.

As a strategy, the success rates of printing pictures on everyday packaging in the United States is not clear and in recent decades the practice has been dropped by many companies.

David Linehan of the volunteer-led Cork City Missing Persons Search and Recovery group, set up in 2001, thinks the idea of placing pictures on milk cartons may not be the best use of resources.

"Social media takes care of so much in that respect and spreads the word of the missing person case quicker than anything else from our experience," he tells me. "The press play their part too so I don't know how effective placing pictures on milk cartons would actually be."

This weekend the family of Jo Jo Dollard will attend a Mass to remember their sister and pray for a breakthrough in the case of her disappearance.

Quietly, they will then walk to the national missing person's monument in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle - alone with their thoughts.

"Jo Jo is in our minds constantly and that, of course can be painful," says Kathleen Bergin. "I try to cling on to hope that we will find her or find out what happened to her... but it's difficult.

''We just hope that whoever took her that winter evening, finds it within themselves to come forward."

To contact the Garda Missing Persons Bureau, telephone 01 6662615 or email missing_persons@garda.ie

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