Manitoba

'Nothing can make me stay': how police still try to help at-risk youth

A 17-year-old girl sobs as she walks out of a house with two Winnipeg police detectives and vows to run again. She's just one of many repeat missing persons cases the force deals with on a daily basis.

Winnipeg police unit searches for 20 missing teens as part of Project Return

Winnipeg police blitzed parts of the city last week looking for at-risk youth and the men who prey on them. It was called "Project Return" and the CBC's Caroline Barghout went along for the ride. 2:51

Two Winnipeg police detectives knock on the door of a two-storey house in the city's North End. It's a known hideout spot for a girl who regularly goes missing.

A young man answers the door and leads them inside. Half an hour later, the officers exit and walk toward their unmarked police car with the 17-year-old, who is sobbing as she slowly shuffles alongside them.
This 17-year-old girl has been reported missing dozens of times since she was 14. (CBC)

"Nothing can make me stay," she says, wiping away her tears. "I run a lot."

The teen's gone missing more times than Winnipeg Police Service Det. Jean Roy can count.

"I couldn't venture to guess," says Roy, who's been with the Missing Person's unit for the past two years. "Dozens and dozens and dozens of times."

This time, she disappeared a day after being placed in a new Child and Family Services group home. She says she escaped to spend time with her boyfriend on his birthday.

When police search the teen, they find two needles of crystal meth. The officers say the girl is at risk of being exploited because of her drug addiction.

"Kids her age shouldn't be doing whatever they want to do," says Det.-Sgt. Shauna Neufeld during a ride-along with a CBC Manitoba reporter. "Someone's gotta make sure that they are safe."

'So many out there'

The girl is just one of 20 teens the detectives are focused on finding this night as part of a special initiative dubbed Project Return.

Neufeld and Roy work alongside officers in the force's counter exploitation unit and community outreach workers, patrolling the streets to look for youth at risk of being sexually exploited and the men who prey on them.

Winnipeg police arrest a 52-year-old man who tried to buy sex from a woman on a Sargent Avenue corner. (CBC)

"There's so many out there," says Sgt. Darryl Ramkissoon, who is in charge of the Winnipeg Police Service's Missing Persons Unit and Counter Exploitation Unit.

While driving in the West End, Ramkissoon spots a 14-year-old missing girl walking along the sidewalk. He radios it in to detectives out looking for the teen.

"She's walking westbound on Ellice," he says.

We do care and these kids are important.-Det.-Sgt. Shauna Neufeld

Within minutes two officers come by and pick the girl up.

"The goal of Project Return is to locate the young vulnerable girls and boys who are missing, and one component of this project is to prevent them from being sexually exploited," says Ramkissoon. "Targeting the Johns is some of the ways we do this."

Ramkissoon watches from a distance as a red Honda pulls up in front of a sex trade worker standing on a street corner.

The 24-year-old man behind the wheel offers her $20 for a blow job. Police arrest him and seize his vehicle.

"We get guys from all walks of life," says Ramkissoon. "We've had guys walk up and offer 10 bucks for sex."

A short while later, police watch a prostitute on Sargent Avenue. A 52-year-old man drives up to her in an old two-door Cadillac.

He offers her $20 for a hand job. Officers take him down, too.

"The ultimate goal is to reduce sexual exploitation in Winnipeg," said Ramkissoon.

Keep them from running

By the end of the night, police have arrested four males trying to buy sex. The youngest is 14 years old.

Missing Person's Det. Jean Roy and Det.-Sgt. Shaunna Neufeld search for at-risk youth as part of Project Return. (CBC)

They've also tracked down five missing youth at risk of being sexually exploited and taken them to a safe place.

"The ideal with these kids is to prevent them from running in the first place," said Neufeld. "And have them in a home or situation where their addictions issues and past traumas are being addressed and that they're in school on a regular basis and have some structure and stability in their life. So it's extremely frustrating when kids are on the run."

The 17-year-old missing girl led sobbing out of house is one of the kids likely to run again, detectives fear.

If she does, the officers will still do whatever it takes to find her and bring her home.

"We do care and these kids are important," said Neufeld. "We want to keep them safe, we want to see them in school. We want to see them grow up to be productive members of society."

About the Author

Caroline Barghout

Investigative Reporter, CBC Manitoba I-Team

Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: caroline.barghout@cbc.ca