COVER

PERILS OF HOME

Abductions by parents far outstrip those by strangers

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER July 24 1995
COVER

PERILS OF HOME

Abductions by parents far outstrip those by strangers

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER July 24 1995

PERILS OF HOME

COVER

Abductions by parents far outstrip those by strangers

Four-year-old Michael Dunahee vanished in broad daylight from a Victoria schoolyard on March 24, 1991, while his parents, Bruce and Crystal Dunahee, sat nearby. “He was there one minute,” says Crystal, “and then he was gone.” Now, more than four years later, Michael’s disappearance remains a mystery—and a chilling reminder to parents that a child can easily be snatched away. Police say it is important to street-proof children against abduction by a stranger, but they also stress that parental fears aroused by tragic cases like Michael Dunahee’s need to be put in perspective. “Such abductions are pretty rare,” notes Don Bland, the Victoria detective who is ivestigating Michael’s disappearance. In fact, statistics from the RCMP’s Missing Children’s Registry show that fewer than one per cent of missing children are abducted by strangers; the rest are either taken by a parent or leave home on their own. “I don’t want to discount the tragedy and profound sense of loss when a child is abducted,” says Robert Glossop, executive-director of social programs with the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa. “But abduction by strangers is not the name of the game in the vast majority of missing-children cases.” Yet, studies conducted in the United States, he notes, show that the majority of children believe that they will likely be stolen from their families. Says Glossop, “That’s a terrible way to go through life.”

The reality is that five times as many children are abducted by a parent than by a stranger. Last year in Canada, there were 394 abductions by parents, compared with 68 by strangers. The children, experts say, are often casualties in bitter divorce struggles. “The impression is that the kids are OK because they are with one of the parents,” says John Carlow, a volunteer with Child Find Victoria. “That is often not the case. Often, it’s a matter of revenge, not love.” A recent RCMP report documents the physical and emotional wounds inflicted on children who are torn from one parent by another:

“Often, in such cases, a child is told that he or she is no longer loved by the other parent—or worse, that the parent is dead.” Authorities also say that many of the children, forced into a life on the run, do not attend school, are left alone for long periods of time and receive inadequate medical care. Rhonda Morgan, founder of the Calgarybased Missing Children’s Society of Canada, notes that studies of adults who experienced parental abduction in their early years “show that they never learn to trust or bond again.”

But while some children are taken by force, the vast majority of missing children leave home on their own. Last year, 40,140 of the 51,973 children reported missing in Canada were runaways. More often than not, they return home within 48 hours—but many become habitual runners. “We call them throwaways,” says David Haines, a

case co-ordinator with Child Find Saskatchewan. “Precious few parents care when these children run away.” Some child care experts argue that runaways—most of whom are aged 12 to 17—are acting out youthful rebellion. “There are children whose parents abuse them,” explains Dr. Harvey Armstrong, a Toronto child psychiatrist and founder of Parents for Youth, an organization devoted to helping parents deal with problem teenagers. “But in most cases, children who leave home as adolescents can’t tolerate limits. I see a lot like that—young tyrants who tyrannize homes until their parents react and then they say, T don’t like it here anymore, I’m going to run away.’ ”

Many youth counsellors would disagree. A recent report by the government of Manitoba—the province with the highest rate of runaways—concluded that 52 per cent were fleeing sexual abuse. “Very often, kids on the street have been neglected and abused emotionally, physically and sexually within their families,” says Glossop. “They find it intolerable and they leave.” Sadly, the options available to them are few. Often runaways take refuge on the streets, getting involved in prostitution, theft and other illegal activities, just to survive. Runaways, observes Catharine Crawford, a counsellor at Toronto’s Evergreen Centre for Street Youth, are most vulnerable when they first land on the street. “They may be lured away from the bus station by pimps,” she says. “They think, ‘Anybody who loves me and will give me intimacy is OK because I really, really need it.’ ”

While the number of missing kids is alarming, reported cases are actually on the decline, having fallen 14 per cent between 1991 and 1994. “We hope that awareness and prevention programs are contributing,” says Ottawabased RCMP Const. Nicole Lauzon-Bauer, who notes that Canadian agencies now have a global reach. Over the past six weeks, Child Find, the RCMP and the Halifax police department started posting photos of missing children on the Internet’s World Wide Web. “Our audience is 36 million users,” says Sgt. Bill Cowper of the Halifax police department. “We couldn’t hope for that much exposure by sending out posters.” He adds that it is now possible on the Internet to distribute samples of a child’s voice and even a video, making identification much easier. Cowper is hoping to bring “a ray of sunshine into the gloomy days” facing the Dunahees, and other parents, whose children’s faces can be seen around the world. Still, technology will do little to resolve the problems of parent abductions and runaways. To do that, says Glossop, “we have to look at the nature of family dynamics and ask if we, as a society, have invested enough time and energy into the well-being of families.”

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

Carey Du Gray

Jeff Gray

Robin Ajello