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'Nice to know someone cares'

Teen's death changed way police track missing youths

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/4/2013 (1580 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It is a case that haunts many Winnipeg police officers: A troubled teen went missing. She turned up days later, face-down in a ditch.

The legacy of Cherisse Houle's 2009 death is playing out in public view, helping to ensure other vulnerable young people don't meet a similar fate.

A family member of Cherisse Houle holds a photograph of her at a vigil at in 2009. Cherisse Houle was 17 in 2009. No one has been charged with her slaying.


A family member of Cherisse Houle holds a photograph of her at a vigil at in 2009. Cherisse Houle was 17 in 2009. No one has been charged with her slaying.

Jessica Sinclair

Jessica Sinclair

Police and child-welfare officials have blitzed the public with a barrage of recent news releases about missing persons.

The majority involve several dozen high-risk Winnipeg youths who are being closely monitored by police to ensure they remain safe.

"A lot of them are suffering from serious addiction issues and are really at a high risk of being exploited," Det.-Sgt. Shaunna Neufeld, the co-ordinator of the Winnipeg Police Service missing-persons unit, said this week.

Rarely a few days go by without police releasing information about another child who has vanished. There have been six such alerts since the beginning of April involving children aged 11 to 14, and two more for teens ages 17 and 19.

Five of those missing persons were located within a few days or weeks of the release. The other three are still missing.

Neufeld said there is much internal debate within her seven-officer unit about which cases should be made public.

"If we release one, it's because 100 per cent we have concerns," she said. "But these are just a small fraction of the missing cases we have."

Neufeld said there are typically between 80 and 140 active missing-persons cases in Winnipeg on any given day.

Most get resolved quickly, even more so now that police have started using the community on a frequent basis.

"With social media now, it really kind of spirals. You really see how crucial the public is. We just saw that in (the Boston bombings) last week," said Neufeld.

The police service developed its public-alert initiative after the killing of Houle, 17, whose disappearance was not the subject of a news release.

Officers work in conjunction with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection and social-services agencies.

Clyde Raven, now retired from the police service, spearheaded the initial campaign following Houle's death.

He previously said his unit was "like a morgue" in the following days as police wondered aloud what else they could have done.

He said a decision was made to begin focusing on the highest-risk youths to make sure they don't become victims like Houle.

"It's not a number or anything. It's a person. It's a young person," said Raven.

"We want to get to know that young person. We want to get to know their personality. We want to get to know their habits... their family. We want to get to know their friends.

"And that gives us the best chance of finding them the next time they go out the door."

The program is based on one in Dallas, Texas, with a social-work approach to policing.

Each officer in the missing-persons unit is assigned a caseload of between five and 10 youths who have been identified as potential high-risk victims. Most have histories that involve drug and alcohol addiction, gang affiliation, running away or being raised in the child-welfare system with little family support.

If a person is identified as a high-risk victim, the same investigator handles the case each time a report is made, instead of the case rotating among officers in the unit.

Most who have been identified as high-risk are female.

Officers meet with them in the hope of building a personal relationship. The officers keep close tabs on their targets and take immediate steps when one goes missing.

Once located, police meet with the young person and mobilize a variety of resources to help them.

No arrest has been made in Houle's slaying.

The teen was last seen on June 26, 2009. Her body was found five days later on Canada Day in Sturgeon Creek, 50 metres from Provincial Road 221, about 16 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

Houle was involved in the sex trade around the time of her death. Family members say she was grappling with addiction. Houle was also the mother of an 18-month-old son.

Neufeld said some of the vulnerable people who have been the subject of previous news releases were able to turn their troubled lives around thanks to the intervention and help they received. Some even expressed shock their disappearance was even noticed.

"For some who are suffering difficult issues, it's nice to know someone cares," she said.

Archive video: Vigil held for Cherisse Houle - July 2009

Read more by Mike McIntyre.


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Updated on Thursday, April 25, 2013 at 7:02 AM CDT: replaces photo

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