When kids go missing

Vancouver police have had problems reacting in the past; this week's case brings up disturbing reminders

Daphne Bramham
Vancouver Sun

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Vancouver police still don't get it that when young girls and women go missing they are highly at risk and it is their duty to help find them.

Myrna McCallum called police last Monday. Her 14-year-old daughter, Alicia, had been missing for two days. Mother and daughter had argued over whether Alicia could date. McCallum didn't call police immediately, believing that her daughter was with a friend and would come home when she'd calmed down.

But two days later McCallum found out that both girls were missing. She called the police and told them that the girls may be at a Burnaby home. But she also thought they might be in the Downtown Eastside.

That's where Alicia was found Friday when Vancouver officers finally went to check.

The question is whether Alicia would have been found if her disappearance hadn't made the front page of Friday's Vancouver Sun. The answer is, probably not.

On Thursday night, Sgt. Ron Fairweather told The Sun's Darah Hansen that he didn't think the case was handled well. "Clearly the members could have done a little bit more in this case, dug a little deeper," said the head of the missing persons unit.

He backed away from that Friday at a news conference. He said VPD had called the Burnaby RCMP asking them to check the home. They did and found nothing.

Normally that's the end of it for VPD. Alicia McCallum ran away once before and, for police, that makes her a chronic runaway. And police don't waste time on chronic runaways. They usually turn up on their own.

Fairweather noted that more than 4,000 people were reported missing last year. Only three have yet to be found. It's a great success rate. Unless you're the parents of those three kids.

Contrast the Vancouver police response to Alicia McCallum's disappearance with what North Vancouver RCMP did when 12-year-old Steven Jeffers was reported missing on Wednesday.

A search began immediately. RCMP officers seized Jeffers' computer. They contacted law enforcement officials in New Hampshire after finding indications that Jeffers might be the victim of Internet luring and they contacted the FBI.

Thursday morning, Jeffers turned up at Vancouver International Airport.

Stephen Jeffers is white. Alicia McCallum and her friend, Colette Lecrete, are native Indians.

Fairweather denied that ethnicity played a role.

But I wonder whether police might have been a little more interested in following up the report of a white, 14-year-old Point Grey student who was missing from her upper-middle-class home.

That said, three years ago when reporter Amy O'Brian and I wrote about extensively about a North Vancouver family whose 15-year-old daughter was missing, police in Vancouver and North Vancouver weren't helpful.

VPD refused to even take a missing person report because the girl didn't live in Vancouver. North Vancouver police took the report, but said there wasn't much they could do since she was a chronic runaway.

It shouldn't be like this. Not here, not after more than 50 women went missing from the Downtown Eastside and are presumed to have been killed in the 1990s.

Police somehow didn't think that maybe a serial killer was preying on vulnerable women. It took public protests before a joint RCMP-Vancouver missing women task force was set up. Finally, in 2002, Robert (Willy) Pickton was charged with the murders of 27 of them. Aside from the Air India bombing, this is the largest mass murder case in Canadian history.

That dreadful record of protecting women is something that we'll be reminded of daily for the next few months with Pickton's trial starting Monday.

Last year, Don Michael Bakker was jailed for 10 years after he pleaded guilty to the sexual torture of three Vancouver women and seven counts of sexually assaulting children in Cambodia.

In the creepy world of sexual tourism that Bakker inhabited, Vancouver is a known destination among pedophiles. Yet even that doesn't seemed to have sufficiently sharpened the VPD's response to reports of missing kids.

Last September, Sun reporter Chad Skelton obtained a copy of the VPD's scathing internal audit of its missing persons unit done in 2004 that found, among other things, that the unit had just one investigator and, perhaps not surprisingly, there were 315 cases unsolved.

Among the other findings were that investigations sometimes didn't even start until 84 hours after people were reported missing.

Deputy Chief Constable Doug LePard told Skelton that all cases are now immediately reviewed by a patrol sergeant. All cases are assigned to officers in the missing person unit and that the unit was "beefed up" from one to two investigators.

Fairweather has only recently been appointed. His predecessor had been suspended and investigated for possession of child pornography.

Rather than the unit being a repository for poorly motivated officers on the cusp of retirement, LePard said, the unit is now staffed with "highly motivated, energetic people."

Ironically, at about the time that Myrna McCallum was appealing to the media for help, Mayor Sam Sullivan was at The Sun's editorial board saying, "I am committed personally to taking on the project of ensuring that women are protected."

As chairman of the police commission, Sullivan has a lot of work to do to make sure that promise is met.

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

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Updated: August 21, 2016