JUSTICE

EXTREME MEASURES

The Missing Children Society of Canada is where desperate parents turn when no one else can help

MARTIN PATRIQUIN January 15 2007
JUSTICE

EXTREME MEASURES

The Missing Children Society of Canada is where desperate parents turn when no one else can help

MARTIN PATRIQUIN January 15 2007

David Chittick stepped onto a Lebanon-bound flight on Dec. 15 with a daunting task: he was to go to Beirut and negotiate the return of Hannah and Cedar Hawach, two young Canadian children held by their Lebanese father, Joseph Hawach. Chittick, who travelled with the children's mother Melissa Hawach, and Alberta private investigator John Slater, would spend five days negotiating with Lebanese authorities and members of Joseph Hawach's family in a fruitless attempt to find and take custody of the children.

When Chittick left, mercenaries moved in. The burly muscle-for-hire, selected for Melissa by John Slater and Aussie private eye John Bracey, provided backup for the young mother as she coaxed her children into the back of a minivan and away from their father, whose recent "vacation" with his children netted him several arrest warrants for kidnapping.

The exact whereabouts of Melissa and the children remain unknown. Two of the mercenaries hired have been arrested while trying to leave Lebanon. Jim Engdahl, Melissa's father and president of Saskatoon-based Great Western Minerals Group, reportedly helped fund the operation, which has spawned a diplomatic tussle between Canadian and Lebanese officials.

Chittick's attempts at negotiation were overseen by Calgary's Missing Children Society of Canada, one of the country's few (if only) child abduction agencies with its own investigation, polygraph and K-9 units. The MCSC, where Chittick is an investigator, claims to have solved some 5,200 missing-children cases since its inception in 1986. "I know of no other group that performs at such a high level," said Staff Sgt. Roger Martin of the RCMP's National Missing Children Services. "They have an incredible success rate."

Chittick says his role in the Hawach case was strictly diplomatic. "I did not personally - nor did the Missing Children Society of Canada - have any involvement in the identification, recruitment, directing or financing of the individuals who have been described as "mercenaries" in connection with the Hawach case," he said via email. Rather, MCSC founder and executive director Rhonda Morgan says the society offers a comprehensive (and free) service to anyone suffering through the disappearance of a child. Along with four full-time investigators, the society has search and dive teams, a polygraph department and parental support services. It also has corporate sponsors like WestJet, which offers free plan travel to parents searching for their children through the MCSC. "Without them, we don't get the kids back," says Calgary Lawyer Max Blitt, who has worked with the group in the past. "They are the practical and enforcement arm of child recovery."

The society's origins are humble enough. In 1984, Morgan saw a TV program profiling three abducted Alberta youths and felt compelled to volunteer for Child Find. Groups like this, she says, have noble but misplaced ideals; they focus on prevention and education, rather than on tracking and returning abducted kids. "The police officers I was dealing with in the beginning treated us as housewives with nothing better to do," Morgan says. "The families were very grateful because there was no resource to help them continue the search for their missing children."

Ten years later, the MCSC hired its first full-time investigator, and has since become the go-to place for desperate parents. Once skeptical, police forces have taken note. Faced with limited budgets and huge number of cases - there are an estimated 66,000 reports of missing children a year - police often rely on the MCSC and its estimated $1.8 million budget to locate and retrieve children who would otherwise remain missing. The parent must first have a court order mandating the society's involvement.  A police report is "preferred" but not essential, says Morgan.

Finding the kids is one thing, but getting them back to their rightful guardians is another entirely, and it is here where MCSC's involvement in the Hawach case remains murky. Though Morgan denies the society had anything to do with the actual removal of the children, the fact remains that its main investigator on the case travelled to Lebanon with Slater - the man who helped recruit the mercenaries. Chittick himself refused to discuss his relationship with Slater.

Children, it seems are often the pawns in a conflict between two parents; the Hawach v Hawach ordeal is a high-profile case of a fairly common occurrence. A failed marriage, kidnapped kids, detectives and mercenaries; war may well be hell, but sometimes family isn't that much better.*

with Jason Kirby