70% of missing person cases in Halifax involve children in care

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Number of children missing from group homes 'not surprising'

Number of children missing from group homes 'not surprising'

When the next missing person call comes in, Det. Const. Mike Cheeseman knows it's likely someone he's been out searching for at least once before.

Cheeseman is one of two officers who looks into missing person cases full time for Halifax Regional Police, which dealt with about 1,000 such reports a year from 2013 to 2016.

In most cases, he said, those who go missing do so on a regular basis, some as many as two or three times a week.

About 70 per cent of all cases involve children living in residential care facilities run by the province, he said.

"The policy is if they fail to return to the home at a predetermined hour, which is normally 10 o'clock at night … they are reported missing," said Cheeseman.

Residential child caring facilities, as the province calls them, are homes for children who have been removed from their families or guardians — usually because they've been abused or neglected.

Usually the child or teen returns to the residential care facility a few hours later or the next day. The same individuals often break curfew multiple times a week, generating a new missing person report each time. 

"As you can imagine that can sometimes make up a large portion of our files," said Cheeseman. "Do I think it's making our ability to do our work cumbersome? No, I wouldn't say." 

Every day police spend two to three hours working on those cases and the majority of the time the children are found safe and sound.

Provincial staff work to protect children

Residential care facility do not lock up children. They are free to come and go as they please within certain limits, such as abiding by a curfew.  

The staff at residential care facility try their best to keep children from running away or breaking curfew, according to Janet Neary, the director of placement services for the Department of Community Services. 

She said most of the time staff are successful at convincing children to stay at the facility, but not always. 

"Coming home late and all of the rest of that is part and parcel of regular adolescent behaviour to a greater or lesser degree," said Neary. 

"The children who are in the care of the minister or Mik'maq Family and Children Services would be considered far more vulnerable than other children. We have that duty, which we take really seriously, to do our very best to protect those children."

That sense of responsibility often prompts staff to err on the side of caution and call police when a child doesn't come home, rather than risk something bad happening to that child.

The many reasons people go missing

In his 2½ years handling missing person cases, Cheeseman said there's only been about four that have turned into homicide investigations. 

Most missing person cases don't end in tragedy, and people are often found unharmed and return home. 

There are lots of reasons why people go missing, according to Cheeseman. Sometimes they get into a disagreement at home and go away for a few days to cool off without letting their family know. At other times there's some kind of a miscommunication between loved ones and they lose touch.

Cheeseman said there is no minimum time people have to wait to report a missing person, and police would rather know right away, even if it is a false alarm.   

Only three to five missing person cases a year aren't solved by Halifax police. Most of those turn out to be suicides and are only closed when a person's remains can be positively identified.