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Teens on the run

Andrew Raven
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (Nov 30/05) - In late October, Susan went shopping downtown with her 14-year-old daughter.

Each headed her own way and were supposed to meet in the Centre Square Mall. But it would be two weeks before Susan (not her real name) saw her troubled teen again.

"At first I thought it was just a normal teenaged thing," Susan said, even though her daughter had run away before. "But then I became worried."

Susan's situation is not unique, said Arlene Hache, head of the Centre for Northern Families. Hache has spent 25 years as a counsellor and advocate for women and children in Yellowknife.

She believes the city is home to about 160 homeless kids and runaways, though there are no official statistics. On average, Hache hears from four parents each week who are searching for their kids. Many of those children move from couch to couch, but others live in storage rooms and underneath apartment buildings, Hache said.

"We have a multitude of children living on the streets," she said.

Police, social service workers and lawmakers have, for the most part, turned a blind eye towards those teens, Hache said.

"By the time they are 14 or 15, nobody wants to deal with them. We have deserted our children."

For about 10 days, Susan scoured the streets, brandishing a picture of her daughter, a Grade 9 student at Sir John Franklin high school.

"There are some folks who (were) real doomsday sayers," said Susan.

The single mother eventually tracked her daughter to a rundown bungalow which neighbours and police suspected was a crack house.

Susan said she called police, who showed up about three hours later, but her daughter wasn't there.

She still does not know what happened in that house or where her daughter spent most of those two weeks. The girl won't discuss the issue with her mother and declined to be interviewed for this story.

Susan said she's worried about whether her daughter fell prey to drug pushers.

She said she wanted more help from police and social services, though she conceded that with the number of runaway kids in Yellowknife, their resources are probably taxed to the limit.

"They are pretty overworked," she said. "But where there is somebody under 16 missing, they should react faster."

Robert Hopkins, manager of Children and Family Services for the territorial government, said the department treats each situation seriously.

"We work with the RCMP to try and locate the child as quickly as possible," he said. "That is the primary goal."

Social workers and police will search for the missing children, Hopkins said. But finding kids who do not want to be found can be difficult.

"Finding a child is not always as fast as we would like," Hopkins said. "We make sure the family is informed all the way through the process."

Yellowknife police made only one arrest for prostitution from 1994-2004, but Hache said many runaway teens trade sex for drugs.

"We have predators ... who are waiting for these kids. Once they get their hooks into them, they know nothing will happen."

Hache has heard stories of teenagers being shipped to Edmonton and Vancouver to be prostitutes - something she said still happens under the noses of police and social services. "This community is absolutely blind to the exploitation of women."

If the 13 social workers and four supervisors with Yellowknife Health and Social Services know a child is in trouble, Hopkins said they will not stand idly by. (Social workers have the power to enter a residence without a search warrant and apprehend children under 16).

"We cannot let a child remain in a place where there is a danger," he said.

Susan's daughter spent 11 months in an Alberta treatment centre before coming home earlier this year. Things were getting better until she began hanging out with old friends and falling back into old patterns.

She ran away from home at least once before disappearing for two weeks in October.

"It's hard," said Susan. (Her daughter did live part of the time with a foster family.) "I work all week and it's not always possible to keep an eye on her."