BEHAVIOR

The mounting toll of missing children

Recent cases spotlight an alarming trend

DIANE BRADY December 10 1990
BEHAVIOR

The mounting toll of missing children

Recent cases spotlight an alarming trend

DIANE BRADY December 10 1990

The mounting toll of missing children

BEHAVIOR

Recent cases spotlight an alarming trend

For more than two years, Diane McQuaker has been waiting for her nightmare to end. The 32-year-old hospital cook says that it began in June, 1988, when her 12-year-old son, Jason, went to watch a soccer game that was being played only a few blocks from their apartment building in Thunder Bay, Ont. McQuaker says that she has not seen her son since. When Jason did not come home after the game, McQuaker said, she thought he might be at a friend’s house. Later, she called the police, who launched a full-scale search. When they did not find the boy, McQuaker said, she and her exhusband had to face the fact that he had probably been abducted. And because no one demanded a ransom, they feared that he was being exploited for sexual purposes. Said McQuaker, who still keeps her son’s pyjamas folded neatly on his pillow: “I can’t let go until I know what has happened to him.” McQuaker’s plight is similar to those of

hundreds of Canadians whose children have been abducted, either by strangers or by an estranged parent. According to RCMP statistics, only four children under the age of 17 were abducted across Canada last year by strangers. At the same time, 574 children were reported to have been abducted by one of their parents. Although the four children taken away by strangers were later found, more than 200 of those who were thought to have been abducted by a parent are still listed as missing. That is at least 15 per cent higher than last year and the highest number of active cases since the RCMP established its Missing Children’s Registry in 1986.

The disturbing increase in

the number of unrecovered abducted children was underscored by a recent rash of disappearances and attempted abductions in Toronto. Metropolitan Toronto Police officials said last week that they were investigating at least eight incidents since early October, including the sexual assault of a two-yearold boy and the unsolved murder of six-year-old Andrea Atkinson, whose body was found on Oct. 23 in a Toronto apartment building following a nine-day search. So far, officials have not divulged the cause of the child’s death, and there has been no arrest in the case.

In another Toronto incident, Quang Trieu discovered that her three-year-old _ daughter, Annie, had vanished from her side while they were shopping in a crowded Toronto discount department store. Police officers later found the child unharmed in a locked church basement a few blocks away. “Parents are scared,” said Staff Sgt. John Howlett of the Toronto police. “When one child goes missing, some worry that their son or daughter is next.” For many parents in other parts of Canada, that worry has already become a reality. Barbara Bohun says that her three-year-old daughter, Casey, vanished from their Delta, B.C., home during the night of Aug. 5, 1989. “We brought in bloodhounds, we tried psychics— there was no trace,” said Bohun. The following May, someone took a month-old baby from a locked car near a shopping mall in another Vancouver suburb. Meanwhile, Sandra Angrignon of Montreal says that she believes that her five-year-old son, Anthony, is with his father. But she says that she does not know where they are. She said that her ex-husband seized the child three years ago during Thanksgiving weekend. Said Angrignon: “He knew that it was the ultimate thing he could do to hurt me.” The mounting toll of missing children has prompted some parents and communities to take protective measures. “When these things surface in one place, they create fear everywhere,” said Cpl. Kenneth Kilby of the Halifax police. Social service agencies in some cities report an increased number of inquiries from concerned parents who want to know how they can prevent their children from being snatched, while some store owners say that the incidents are increasing sales of so-called toddler leashes and other safety devices.

Still, officials say that the vast majority of missing chil-

dren are those who run away from home. According to the RCMP, a total of 57,398 children under 17 were reported missing last year. But more than half of those children were found within 24 hours, and 89 per cent were located within two months. Fully 73 per cent of the missing children were listed as runaways. Experts say that the tragedy for many of the runaways, who often flee as the result of physical or emotional abuse, is the situation they left at home. Said Joan Fisher, a research officer with the solicitor general’s office in Ottawa who wrote a 1989 report on missing children: “These kids are victims of a social problem as opposed to a criminal one.”

At the same time, an increasing number of children are being abducted, most often by one of their own parents. Even though separated or divorced parents who abduct their children can face up to 10 years in prison under a 1983 amendment to the Criminal Code, some experts say that parental abduction is still not treated as a serious crime in Canada. For one thing, analysts claim, the police are sometimes reluctant to press charges because, in many cases, custody rights have not been clearly established. “Everyone keeps saying that at least I know who he’s with, as if that makes it less urgent,” said Geri Geier of Guelph, Ont., whose three-year-old son, Jesse, disappeared with his father, her ex-boyfriend, last October. “My little boy thought that he was leaving me for a few hours, but now he might never come back.”

Officials who work in the field say that many estranged parents who abduct their children try to take the child as far away as possible. According to Canada Customs, Canadian customs officers last year caught 34 people trying to smuggle abducted children out of the country. As well, experts say that children abducted by their own parents often suffer various kinds of abuse. Said Eric Sommerfeldt, Alberta coordinator of the Calgary-based national organization Child Find Canada Inc., which helps parents and police who are looking for missing children: “If the kid looks like the other parent, the abductor often takes it out on him. There is always emotional, often physical and sometimes sexual abuse.”

For most parents, though, the assailant who is not related to the child, and whose designs on the child are often sexual, remains the most sinister threat. Some experts say that, in the majority of cases of sexual molestation, the child has previously known the assailant. Despite that fact, police officials contend that the only effective way to prevent assaults and kidnappings by pedophiles is for children to be taught to trust only their parents, or people with well-established roles in their lives. After police found Andrea Atkinson’s body in Toronto, her mother told reporters that the girl must have known her killer because she was “streetwise, and would never talk to strangers.” In the end, constant vigilance and care on the part of parents may be the only way of safeguarding children in an increasingly dangerous society.

DIANE BRADY with correspondents’ reports