Grande Prairie youth shelter staff urge compassion for runaway, missing teens
'If we ignore or talk down about the youth that are struggling, then all we do is push them further out'
Tanya Wald has handled the death of one teenage client since taking over Grande Prairie's only emergency youth shelter eight years ago.
Now, whenever a teen from the shelter goes missing, Wald feels sick. Many are dangerously close to becoming a statistic, she said.
Nearly half of the 483 missing persons reports filed by RCMP in Grande Prairie last year involved people younger than 18.
"There's a genuine concern for their well-being because we know who they're connected to," said Wald, executive director of Sunrise House.
"You hear various stories of either overdoses, or stories of people being killed because of the lifestyle that they're in, so it's very scary."
More than 100 teens sign into Sunrise House every year. The shelter offers emergency beds and 24/7 support to boys and girls aged 12 to 17, who have nowhere else to go.
Youth workers in Grande Prairie are facing new challenges when the teens run away or go missing from their guardians, Wald said.
Once cut off from their support system, they become more vulnerable to exploitation and deadly drugs like fentanyl.
"It's getting more difficult to find them," Wald said. "If they're involved with individuals who are looking to exploit them, or if they're connected to a street family, or any level of prostitution, they're kept very well hidden.
"It's not necessarily a new trend, but definitely the issues that are surrounding the trends are increasing and becoming more and more complex and more difficult to get ahead of."
'They deserve the opportunities to be better'
Some teens go missing repeatedly, Wald said, returning to a "street mom" or "street dad" who has promised to care for them.
"This sudden connection to what they are considering a family makes it very difficult for us to pull them back," Wald said.
Public attitudes toward runaway teens can shift when a name appears repeatedly in missing persons reports, she added.
Wald says it's hard not to hit back when she sees hurtful comments on social media sites about teens she has worked with.
"Every child, no matter what they have done or where they're at, they deserve the opportunities to be better and to grow," she said.
"If we ignore or talk down about the youth that are struggling, then all we do is push them further out."
'We want to know that they're alive'
If family, friends and youth workers can't find a missing teen, Wald said RCMP are contacted.
"We want to know that they're alive," she said. "When we can't find them, unfortunately we will sometimes go to the worst-case scenario and that's when you'll see the reports coming out."
Police can spread a missing person's name and picture, broadening the search beyond Grande Prairie to other communities in the Peace Region.
Grande Prairie RCMP filed 483 missing persons reports in 2017, up from 302 in 2016. Police did not state how many have been resolved.
"Every case is taken seriously and will be investigated as a priority," said RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Warren.
"Challenges with missing persons is that there's just such a variety of investigations and there's no standard approach to them.
"Every case is unique and our investigators' approach will differ depending on the type of information that they received."
'They feel safer on the street'
Wald said she recognizes the majority of young people who are reported missing in Grande Prairie, having worked with them at Sunrise House.
She's urging people in the community to take every missing persons report seriously, even if someone disappears more than once.
"There's a bigger story and a bigger history to those youth," Wald said. "They feel safer on the street than they do in their home.
"The faster we can get ahold of these kids, get them back into safe places, get them connected to the right supports, the right resources, then the less likely they are to end up in these situations or with the people that are, unfortunately, likely to either get them killed or chronically on the street."
Anyone with information about a Grande Prairie missing persons case is asked to contact the local RCMP detachment at 780-830-5700.
Anonymous tips can be made to Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.