News / Kitchener

Waterloo police to change handling of missing person cases

WATERLOO REGION — Waterloo Regional Police are changing the way they handle missing person cases, in what could be a first step toward a permanent unit that specializes in solving disappearances.

Meanwhile, a group of local parents are pushing for provincial legislation that could make it easier for investigators to find their loved ones. That includes removing privacy barriers around banking, medical and phone records that often block police.

Those parents, organized by Waterloo’s Maureen Trask — whose own son Daniel Trask vanished in 2011— have the support of Kitchener Waterloo MPP Catherine Fife. She plans to bring their petition to the legislature, and will press the attorney general to give police new searching powers in these kind of cases.

As they lobby for changes, Waterloo Regional Police have already reassigned two homicide branch investigators, Sgt. Richard Dorling and Det. Duane Gingerich, to solving missing person cases on a full-time basis. The pair, who have long investigated missing person cases out of personal interest, will now focus primarily on finding the missing, including children and the elderly. Another officer, Sgt. Mike Allard, will handle cases involving teenagers.

While the public will still report missing people the same way, by calling non-emergency police lines, some hope this could lead to a permanent unit dedicated exclusively to missing persons.

“Our key focus is now first and foremost finding missing persons,” said Sgt. Dorling. “I’m excited about this. This is something we’ve looked at for a while, and it’s just in its infancy now. But I believe each case deserves our attention.”

As part of their work, they’re gathering more detailed records on people who have gone missing in the past, documenting things such as tattoos and dental records that can make them easier to identify later on.

“This way, if they disappear again, we’ll have a head start and know where to look,” Sgt. Dorling said.

There are around 370 longterm, missing adult cases in Ontario, according to the Ontario Provincial Police, including about 20 involving people from Waterloo Region. Many more children and adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s go missing, for shorter periods, on a weekly basis.

Adult cases often exist in legal limbo — with no evidence of a crime, police are blocked from getting court orders that allow access to banking, medical or phone records that could help solve their case.

Advocates hope new legislation could fix that tension between a missing person’s right to privacy and their families’ hopes for answers. It’s especially important as our population ages, said Fife, who is putting the petition on her website.

“It’s hard not to be touched by the heartbreak that parents feel when they lose their adult children,” Fife said.

“And with the rise of dementia in society, there’s good reason to try to get ahead of what’s an emerging issue. … We want to empower police to be able to do a thorough investigation.”

Fife said she may try to bring forward the changes with a private member’s bill, but she’s hoping to get support from the Liberal government, which would save a lot of time.

“I think when people disappear, it hasn’t broadly been thought of as an injustice,” she said. “I think the time has come to bring this issue to the legislature.”

Four other provinces — B.C., Alberta, Manitoba and Nova Scotia — have already adopted missing persons’ legislation similar to what she’s asking for, Fife said. In 2005, Ontario tried to pass a bill that would change the laws, but the legislature dissolved before it could be passed.

Trask, the Waterloo mother who has spearheaded the effort to change Ontario’s laws around missing persons cases, is hoping the time has finally come for a provincial Missing Person Act.

Her son Daniel disappeared into the wilds of Temagami almost three years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. She hopes new legislation could help end years of questions for families like hers.

“The petition is Step 1. Let’s get it on the books, because right now there’s nothing,” she said. “Our community doesn’t understand what families are going through. You say the words, you paint the picture, but they really don’t get it.”

She’s also behind an effort to create information kits for families who report a missing person. Those kits, to be handed out by police, will help direct people to local services such as counselling and offer guidance to dealing with banks, government agencies and police, Trask said.

“When someone you love goes missing, you don’t know where to turn,” she said. “Today, it’s still uncharted territory, and every family has been charting it on their own.”

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