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MissPers: What's new in (some) Canadian research?

A while back I undertook a monster review of the missing persons research in Canada as part of an exercise for the Independent Review under way. When I say ‘monster’, I don’t mean in terms of volume. What I mean is that the body of quality literature was so weak and non-existent, that it gave me a monster of a headache. On the upside, it did spur some ole Canadian effort to try to fix the situation. So, a lot of what falls below may seem basic or entirely descriptive – and it is. It is, because we actually lack a lot of baseline information on missing persons cases.

Here was what myself and the rest of the team here at Can-SEBP HQ (meaning mostly Lorna, some me and some Larissa and Jack … but lots of Lorna) have been doing:

Coming out or in review

‘The Power Few of Missing Persons Cases’

This preliminary study – the beginning phase of a much larger programme of experimental and other research aimed at reducing missing persons cases - draws on Canadian municipal police records on closed missing persons files (n=26,835) to test the potential utility of the ‘power few’ concept to both the missing and repeat missing persons phenomena. In the pages that follow, this paper provides an introduction to the repeat missing phenomenon (within the context of ‘missingness’, more generally), before presenting the methods employed. The next section provides results of the analysis performed, before concluding with a more nuanced discussion of the potential practical and policy implications of this work for targeting police efforts to reduce missing persons calls.

‘“Did Not Return in Time for Curfew”: A Descriptive Analysis of Homeless Missing Persons Cases’

Homeless communities have garnered recent public attention in Canada due to their high rates of violence, victimization, and being reported as missing. There have been several high profile cases, investigations, and inquiries involving missing homeless persons, yet very little is known about what cases are reported to the police, under what circumstances they go missing, and the outcomes of those cases. As a result, the purpose of this study is to shed much-needed light on some of these unresolved issues by offering an exploratory, descriptive analysis of 291 closed missing person cases from the records of a municipal police service. What this analysis reveals is a somewhat more mundane picture. Specifically, results indicate that the majority of missing person reports are of those who are female and White, have a drug/alcohol addiction, are residing at homeless shelters/missions, and have no previous history of being reported as missing. As well, incident characteristics revealed that most reasons for being reported as missing are to due being missing from shelters and issues with curfews and that all are located alive. This study extends the minimal existing scholarship on the relationship between homelessness and being reported as missing, as well as provides information on vulnerabilities and factors that impact missing homeless person cases.

‘Who Is at Risk of Wandering and Going Missing? A Preliminary Study of Missing Reports in a Canadian City’

Despite an increased research and policy focus on the economic, health and other shifts affecting our aging population, one area which has generated little attention is the phenomenon of elderly missing persons. The present study offers an analysis of Canadian police data (2013-2018), from which we find that males, who are community-dwelling and have dementia or a related condition are most likely to be reported missing to the police. Consistent with previous studies outside of Canada, we find that location is a significant risk factor for going missing, and that community-dwelling individuals are more likely to be reported missing than those in institutional care. Most importantly, we find a relationship between going missing and having dementia or related condition. Although previous literature indicates there might be a relationship between going missing and having dementia, ours is the first to identify a relationship between dementia and going missing using retrospective police reports.

‘Who Goes Missing from Canadian Hospitals and Mental Health Units? An Exploratory Study?’

International literature on missing persons suggests a significant volume of missing person cases originate from hospitals and mental health units, resulting in considerable costs, resources, and service demands on both police and health sectors (e.g., Bartholomew, Duffy, & Figgins, 2009; Bowers, Jarrett, Clark, Kiyimba, & McFarlane, 2000; Sowerby & Thomas, 2017). In the Canadian context, however, very little is known about incidents of patients reported missing from health services, or otherwise absconding from hospital care – a knowledge deficit with profound implications in terms of identifying and addressing risk factors that can contribute to this phenomenon. The present study draws on data from a sample of approximately 8,500 closed missing person reports collected from a Canadian municipal police service (2013-2018). Using multiple logistic regression, we identify, among other factors, who is most likely to be reported missing from these locations. Results reveal that several factors, such as drug/alcohol dependency, are significantly related to this phenomenon.

In the works

“Who Goes Missing from Hospitals Versus Mental Health Units? An Exploration of the Importance of Location Type in Understanding Missing Persons Cases”.

To date, research on missing persons has explored the phenomenon of individuals going missing from hospitals and mental health units in ways that treat these often very different location types as the same. This conflation of two different location types has implications for not only research, but also for the development of prevention strategies, policy-making, police response and so on. In this study, we use multinomial logit models to examine what factors contribute to incidents of going missing from hospitals versus mental health units, drawing on a sample of cases reported to a Canadian municipal police service. Results suggest there are significant differences in who goes missing from each location type, a finding that has implications, we argue, for police work. For example, mental illness and addiction being factors associated with incidents from mental health units but are not associated with reports generated from hospitals, which can be linked to other factors including life stressors. Given this finding, it is suggested that police risk assessment tools and intervention strategies, as well as research more generally, should address these location types differently.

‘“Going Missing” as a Maladaptive Coping Behaviour for Adults Experiencing Strain’

The present study explores in greater detail the notion of ‘escape’ as a maladaptive coping strategy by employing a perspective guided by Lazarus and Folkman’s (1984) Threat Appraisal and Coping Theory. This theory suggests that individuals experiencing stress engage in a cognitive appraisal of their current situation, and then evaluate their own ability to respond to their situation before deciding how to respond. Those who do not feel capable of addressing their situation – perhaps because they have low feelings of self-esteem, are unable to gain command over their emotion and/or feel otherwise helpless to change their circumstances – may be drawn to maladaptive ways of coping in order to achieve some level of emotional or cognitive distance. Adults running away, or ‘going missing,’ is one such example. To examine this phenomenon, we draw on a qualitative analysis of five years’ (2013-2018 inclusive) from two sets of Canadian municipal police records of closed repeat missing persons files of adults aged 22 and over (n=80). Analyzing witness and complainant statements from police reports, we see that individuals close to the missing person were able to identify proximate causes and/or underlying stressors that were said to be contributing factors. They were also able to describe an individual’s perceived emotional state pre-event, which was typically seen as ‘angry’, ‘upset’, ‘overwhelmed’, among others. In terms of previous use of maladaptive coping, fifteen (n=15) individuals within our sample were also reported as having been reported missing previously, five (n=5) witnesses stated a missing person was an active marijuana user, three (n=3) were variously described as “drinking”, two (n=2) were crack cocaine users, two (n=2) were said to be using “drugs”, two (n=2) were gambling and two (n=2) were using opiates.

“Missing Persons,” special issue for Policing & Society.

Aiden Sidebottom over at the University College of London had a great idea: why don’t we approach one of the international journals and try to get a special issue on missing persons together? Misspers research has been a bit of an orphan in the policing research literature, more generally, so we thought this would be a good strategy to try to get some attention on this issue.

Lorna’s PhD

Lorna has been busy conducting interviews with police personnel from across Canada – missing persons coordinators, Search and Rescue members, police detectives, frontline officers, with the hope of filling in knowledge gaps on ‘what works’ ‘what doesn’t work’ and ‘what we still don’t know’ in terms of how to most effectively and efficiently response to misspers reports.

On the drawing board

The Typology Project

Teaming up with members of the London Police Service and the Victoria Police Department, we intend to do a very deep dive into the phenomenon of missing persons in order to create a typology of different case types by adult, youth and child. The reason for this is simple: if we can start to unpack the distinct causes behind different types of missing events, we might be able to better target intervention attempts or alternate reporting mechanisms, because the reality is that the call volume for these cases is often overwhelming and it is not realistic to treat every single case - as some policy-makers would like the police to do - as though it were one entailing significant risk and deploying resources to respond to each call. Doing that, by the way, pretty much ensures that cases involving real risk will receive fewer resources, because ... I don't see budgets going up. Speaking of which ...

… once we do this, we can also start to cost out what these different types of cases consume in terms of police time and resources. When people talk about mental health causes as a significant driver of police call volume and therefore costs, misspers cases are often either ignored or subsumed under the umbrella of ‘mental health’, generating little in the way of public attention. The reality is - as a wealth of international research suggests (and our own data) - the overwhelming majority of misspers cases have non-fatal outcomes (see, for example, Newiss 2006, 2011). The person comes home of their own volition, safe and sound. So, it's important that we get a better handle on understanding this phenomenon, what works to prevent it, to improve risk profiles and, yes, to figure out what this costs and if there are more cost-effective ways to treat such cases.


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