The president of the Nova Scotia Child and Youth Care Workers Association says a CBC investigation into the number of children reported missing from provincial group homes was "not surprising."

The association works to unite all youth and child care workers, with the common vision of enhancing the profession in Nova Scotia. It also aims to ensure quality service for children, youth, families and communities, according to the organization's website. 

The CBC investigation revealed that between January 2011 and December 2016 there were 2,655 reports of children missing from 15 residential facilities for youth in provincial care. That works out to be one child going missing a day.

"In fact, I think that's actually rather a low number, " said association president Jeff Reid. "I know from my experience that not every report gets filed according to protocol."

'Not your average teenagers'

Reid said the protocol of calling police if a youth doesn't return 15 minutes after the curfew time can skew the numbers.

"The dilemma you have to recognize is that the young people we're talking about are not your average teenagers. They're the young people who have presented as being at-risk," he said.

That risk is why absences are reported to police after such a short period of time.

For example, some group home residents have been vicitimized in the sex trade or are trying to escape from the sex trade.

Jeff Reid

Jeff Reid is the president of the Nova Scotia Child and Youth Care Workers Association. (CBC)

"And so there's a potential recruitment issue as well. I do have some experiences with young people who have been veterans of the sex trade and in the group care setting might actually be doing some recruitment," he said.

The 15-minute protocol, Reid said, is "erring on the side of caution."

"In some cases, for some of these young people, it may be too long of a time period, if they do present significant risk to themselves," he said.

More supports needed

Valerie Shapiro, a social worker at Adsum House, an emergency shelter for women, said by the time many youngsters get to group homes, the damage has already been done.

Her clients are often people who've grown up in the provincial care system. "There are a lot of really bad experiences. It is all rooted in what has happened before they get to a group home," she said.

They're frequently products of multiple foster homes, abuse and untreated or undiagnosed mental illnesses, Shapiro said.

"By the time a kid is in a group home, they feel as though they have nothing left to lose, so there is nothing necessarily to keep them there," she said.

"If you talk a young person who's been in a group home, they may tell you that they're there because nobody wants them. It's a general feeling that I've heard described. That's not how we want anyone to feel."

She said group home workers come to the field wanting to help kids, but find themselves in an under-resourced system. There's only so much workers can do, she said, and children can't be forced to stay.

"Our kids need homes," Shapiro said. "We need to think about our interventions as a society for our kids in care. How are kids ending up in a group home situation? I think we need to look at our entire system, how we're supporting kids before they end up in group homes."

Police perspective

Det. Const. Michael Cheeseman works in the Halifax Regional Police Department's VICE unit. He said about 70 per cent of missing persons cases involve youth in the care of the provincial government. 

He said social media has been helpful in tracking missing youth.

"It gives us a way to learn more about individuals, not just sex trade workers but also people we're looking for — missing persons, he said.

Det. Const. Mike Cheeseman

Det. Const. Mike Cheeseman says social media has been a big help in locating missing teens. (CBC)

"We can use it as a tool because again, once we put someone's name out there with the help of social media, people have that information at the palm of their hand."

Cheeseman said police do what they can to help young people get back on track. 

"I think sometimes where they are young, they don't realize that they're not invincible," he said.

"I try not to become frustrated because I have to recognize that this is a form of police work that you don't see results overnight."

Staffing concerns

As for the workers employed to look after the youth, Reid said there can be gaps in education backgrounds.

Some workers may have child and youth degrees or diplomas, while others may have a general human services education that did not have any specific training to the field.

Reid said in many cases "staffing is such that you have one staff person for four individuals."

"If a young person wants to leave, short of physically restraining them if they're presenting an immediate risk to themselves, there really isn't much that can be done if they're over the age of 12," he said.

Reid said most of the youth facilities mentioned in the investigation "rely on the relationship the young people have with the staff people."

"If the staff have formed relationships, then they can try to engage with the young person before they leave or try to even be proactive if they see the signals that the young person may be getting ... ready to leave," he said.

Reid said the group care system can be a good place for youth who don't have the complex care needs.

"It can't be the end solution and expect that that's going to contain people that have mental health issues, drug and addiction issues, perhaps who are caught in the sex trade and are just using the group home as a brief rest before they go back on the street," he said.

With files from Tom Murphy and Angela MacIvor