UPDATE: On Friday, Dec. 5, Red Deer RCMP released a news release saying that 14-year-old Skyler Abernethy had been found. She had been “located in good health” and the RCMP thanked “the public for their assistance.”
EDMONTON – As a journalist, your inbox has a tendency of becoming a mish-mash of municipal traffic advisories, community events and police media releases. Though one word seemed decidedly prevalent in mine: Missing.
At least a dozen press releases were emailed to the Global Edmonton newsroom between September and December regarding missing youth. One report included three individuals who had gone missing. The cases involved mostly girls, who were often eventually located in good health.
The emails were all sent from the Red Deer detachment of the RCMP, a commonality not lost on the assignment desk.
So it was decided. I was Red Deer-bound to get to the bottom of the story. A story intensified by the fact that a 14-year-old girl named Skyler Abernethy had gone missing for the fifth time.
Was Red Deer seeing a spike in missing persons cases? Or chronic runaways?
We posed those questions to Corporal Leanne Molzahn.
“Although there has been a noticeable increase in the reports coming from the Red Deer detachment, it was not as a result of an increase of reports to this detachment. Media reports are utilized as an investigational tool,” said Molzahn.
When asked about Skyler Abernethy, she declined to comment.
“The RCMP’s role is not to comment on those that are missing. Our goal is to locate those individuals quickly in good health, regardless of their circumstances or background,” she responded.
We attempted to locate Abernethy’s family – to no avail. Her photo and information have been made available to the public and the media.
We pressed Molzahn on the strain chronic runaways place on their resources. Her response: “RCMP members do not consider circumstances or background. We have a protocol in place that we investigate each and every case.”
Still, there were a dozen missing persons cases in a span of just three months.
We reached out to the 49th Street Youth Shelter and Vantage Community Services, but unfortunately no one was available to comment.
Our intention was not only to ask “Hey, what’s going on with all of these cases popping up?” but to delve deeper. What types of stressors exist in the world of tweens/teens today that would motivate them to pick up and leave home?
In a further attempt to get some answers, we contacted the Red Deer Public School District. No go. Officials weren’t aware of an overarching issue of youth runaways or missing persons.
So are Red Deer RCMP simply more diligent than other members when it comes to reporting missing persons?
Sargeant Josee Valiquette believes social media has played an integral role in helping Mounties track down missing persons. The Alberta RCMP launched its Twitter page in June and has used the internet as a platform to promote awareness about cases on its radar.
Valiquette says news releases tend to go out earlier nowadays. She added every case undergoes a risk assessment, looking at the “totality of the situation” and the background of the person who is missing. Then it is up to the detachment to decide if and when to issue any release. However, Valiquette stresses the earlier the release is put out, the greater the chance of finding the youth.
On our newsgathering mission (complete with a hefty dose of caffeine) we spoke with Mark Cherrington, who works with at-risk youth.
His Twitter page reads like a support page. In one tweet, Cherrington wrote: “Helping a 16yr pregnant girl try find some clothing & baby supplies. Has child welfare status but gets minimal support. No stable residence.”
Gone are the days of the bindle-toting runaway, he says. Those who choose to leave home are doing so for a plethora of reasons, be it violence in the family, community overcrowding or substance abuse in the home.
Cherrington says one of the main problems is the response to runaways. Using child welfare as an example, he says they typically bring a person back to the place they ran away from once located.
As for police, Cherrington says running away is a social issue and not a criminal one – and counselling needs to be inherent in treating the situation.
Returning a person to the environment they were trying to flee isn’t always the way to go.
In the end, our story did not make it to air. We were shot down, but not out. Only filled with more questions.
*NOTE: This article was originally published Dec. 3. It was updated on Dec. 5 to include news that Abernethy had been found safe.