Anida Ross, the mother of Delaine Copenace, was upset.
“I tried requesting autopsy photos but they won’t let me have them,” she told the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls in Thunder Bay.
“Because they said it belongs to the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) I said, ‘Yeah, pictures of my daughter belong to you? No, they should belong to me.’”
Accessing crime scene images along with autopsy information has emerged as a major sore spot for families, according to testimony at the eight public hearings to date.
Some have described tense battles with police and government agencies for official documents as they try to fill in the gaps of what happened to their loved ones.
“That’s where we come in,” said Laurie Davies of the Family Information Liaison Unit (FILU) in Edmonton.
“We run alongside the national inquiry, and provide support to families in each province and territory,” she said.
The units began operating in April 2017.
Davies said they can help families get everything from medical reports to death certificates, help them interpret the information, and connect them with counselling to deal with the results.
It’s a role Davies, who has travelled to every community in her Alberta territory to make presentations, is relishing.
“It’s about building relationships,” she said. “I love the work: interacting with people, making a difference.”
But not everyone knows about FILU, which has been quietly humming along while the troubled inquiry limps in the spotlight.
That was evident in Saskatoon where the MMIWG rented a major hotel ballroom to advertise FILU services that didn’t see much traffic.
“We need all the publicity we can get,” said Dorothy Myo, FILU manager for Saskatchewan, who was on hand to answer questions.
Some families learn about FILU through the inquiry. Other times, FILU staff find them.
Helen Vriglen, the FILU contact in Nova Scotia, said she introduced herself to the family of Virginia Pictou Noyes following their testimony in Membertou.
The Pictous shared how difficult it was to access cross-border information from Maine State Police about the Canadian woman’s disappearance in 1993.
Copenace’s mother, Anida Ross, said she’d dearly love to have a copy of the police report that concludes her daughter, Delaine, drowned in Lake of the Woods after going missing in Kenora, Ont., in 2016.
“There seems to be a lack of contact between families and police,” said Davis.
While unintentional, she said that lack of contact can hurt, confuse, frustrate and anger families.
“We can be that bridge they need,” she said, adding families don’t have to participate in the inquiry to make use of FILU services.
“Our job is to be non-adversarial and get valid answers why families can’t get the information they need.”
Davies said police reports are what families ask for the most – then autopsy results and referrals to health support.
“We bring them smudge kits but we’re not counsellors,” said Davies, noting she can refer family members to culturally sensitive workers and Elders.
Davies has connected with more than 20 family members so far.
“We never tell the families what they need. We try to find out what they need,” she added.
Families are under “such great stress,” agreed Myo.
“They feel alone when they’re trying to get information. We can access police and government agencies in a way family members can’t to help complete their story.”
Myo, who has a social work background, said her office helped more than 20 families prepare for the inquiry hearings in Saskatoon.
She said FILU staff were able to translate organizational jargon “into layman’s language” so families could share their stories with important details they wanted to leave on the inquiry record.
With some crimes occurring in different provinces or territories, Myo said FILU teams communicate weekly so nothing falls between the cracks.