During September last year, youths were reported missing in Fort Smith 19 times. In October, there were 23 reports. By mid-November, another 23 missing youths had been reported.
The reports came from Trailcross – an eight-bed, 24-hour residential treatment and therapy facility for NWT teens aged 12 to 18. Often, youth staying at Trailcross run away.
At a meeting with town councillors in December, an RCMP officer said all of the incidents had a positive outcome but the number of reports had increased significantly, with a consequent impact on police resources.
After this report was first published, the NWT’s health authority said measures had been taken to address the issue.
According to minutes from December’s council meeting, Cpl Chris MacDonald said most of the calls were initially about one female youth. Then, calls began about multiple missing youths. At one point, five of the six teens staying at the centre were “concerns to the RCMP,” the minutes stated.
“These types of files are typically very labour-intensive,” MacDonald wrote in his November report to town council. “They have the potential to be very serious and thus a significant amount of effort is put in at the onset of a complaint being received.”
According to the meeting minutes, MacDonald told councillors they should be concerned about the number of hours RCMP spend looking for teens who repeatedly go missing.
“He advised that in the last three months to date, more than 185 man-hours have been spent on searching for these missing youth in the community,” the minutes noted.
If RCMP receive a request to locate someone or check on their well-being, said MacDonald, officers treat that as a missing persons file – and cannot respond differently, regardless of the apparent circumstances.
MacDonald said there were significantly fewer such reports when Trailcross was operated by Wood’s Homes, which ran the treatment centre for five years.
What may have changed in the past year, since new operator Shift took over at Trailcross, is how staff decide when to contact RCMP for assistance.
When to make that call would be determined by employees at Shift, the organization that has operated the treatment centre since November 2018, in consultation with the NWT’s Department of Health and Social Services.
MacDonald said the matter of why missing persons reports at Trailcross are increasing is “being addressed” by the government and the RCMP, and is a “top priority” for both organizations, the minutes stated.
Three female teens who were the subject of a number of the reports have since left the community, the officer added.
MacDonald said Trailcross has a policy setting out when to call the police. The colder the weather, the sooner staff must call for help when a teen is missing.
He told councillors cold winter weather may deter youths from running away, but he remained concerned about addressing the root cause of the problem and making changes. Otherwise, he feared, reports of missing youths would return to a similar level in warmer weather.
According to the minutes, Mayor of Fort Smith Lynn Napier asked if there was anything the community could do to help. MacDonald said responsibility ultimately lay with the health department and Shift.
Shift did not respond to a request for comment from Cabin Radio. An RCMP spokesperson said MacDonald was travelling and nobody would be available for comment this week.
‘No calls in December’
The NWT Health and Social Services Authority, responding after initial publication of this report, told Cabin Radio it was “working closely” with RCMP and Shift “to ensure appropriate measures are in place to reduce impact on RCMP resources while also ensuring the safety of the youth.”
The health authority said those measures included a monthly meeting between Shift, RCMP, and representatives of Child and Family Services; more support from Child and Family Services for Shift and RCMP; better communication with youth at Trailcross; and more staff training and development.
“Shift has changed procedures to ensure staff members are actively looking for youth who are absent from the facility to reduce use of RCMP resources,” the health authority said.
In a statement, the authority continued: “It is important to note that while youth who access services at Trailcross have structure including schedules, rules and curfews, they are also participating in the programming on a voluntary basis and retain personal freedom of movement.
“To be successful in this type of program, youth participating need to be partners in their wellness journey and active participants in their treatment. The goal of the Trailcross program is to provide the tools and supports youth need to be successful.”
The health authority said there were “no calls for service to the RCMP due to absent clients from Trailcross” in December 2019. RCMP have not yet made their statistics for the month public.