The pictures stare down at you – most of them are barely teenagers. Some of the looks are distant, starring through you in a blank, unnerving way. Others are the looks of despair. The names are familiar too.
This was ten years ago, in an off-limits room at the Public Safety building. I was shadowing police officer Bob Chrismas and a unit trying to help Winnipeg’s most vulnerable. Police team up with Child and Family Services to make a difference in their lives. All were wards of the system and most are indigenous children. Some would disappear for hours, others for days.
“It’s an uphill battle,” Chrismas told 680 CJOB news at the time. “The streets are sometimes the only home these children know.”
Members of the unit worked the phones and often the streets to track down these teens. There were way more missing children than police officers to handle the problem.
Today, 14-year-old Brianna Jonnie has caught our attention over a letter she wrote to the police chief and mayor. Is there a difference between the way indigenous and non-indigenous cases are handled? The answer today is the same I found ten years ago – no. But you need to know the numbers and the circumstances. I found most children on that top ten list were in dire circumstances that required intervention beyond what police could offer – parents, guardians, constancy, patience and love.
That’s tough for the system to offer.
As of Monday, there were 55 youths and 26 adults officially missing in Winnipeg. Most will be found or turn up in a matter of hours. Others may disappear for weeks or months at a time. Some will fall prey to gangs who exploit young women in the sex trade.
The officers in the missing persons and counter-exploitation unit face several hurdles. A key problem: resources. We need safe houses or temporary shelters for youth who require protection but may not want to go with police or other agencies trying to intervene.
“A large majority of those youths go missing multiple times in a month,” says inspector Kelly Dennison of Winnipeg Police. “So we’ll locate them on a Monday, they would be returned to the residence where they live and then quite often, within the week they’re missing again. The numbers are astounding with the young children that go missing multiple times over and over again.”
I spoke at length with inspector Dennison yesterday.