New Windsor program aims to help children who go missing

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A first of its kind program in Canada is being launched in Windsor to support children who go missing and youth at risk of exploitation.

The Windsor Police Service is working with Youth Wellness Hub Windsor-Essex to launch the Return Support Discussion Program.

The pilot program will connect recently returned or located missing children and young people with a peer support worker, giving youth the chance to confidentially share their experiences, explain why they went missing and any risks or harm they faced during their missing episodes.

The program aims to help identify trends and work with youth to create an environment where they won't go missing again. 

The project will also proactively respond to the risks and harm children and youth face during missing episodes, including criminal activity, sexual exploitation, domestic abuse, human trafficking, and mental health issues.

In 2022, 89 children and young people (between 12-25 years old) went missing in Windsor and Amherstburg. Many of these children and young people went missing more than once, resulting in 679 individual missing reports recorded by the Windsor Police Service.

Angela Thompson, Operations Manager for the Youth Wellness Hub, says youth often leave home as a way to try to cope or as a form of communication.

"When youth are missing, there could be various risks to their safety occurring. When they are staying with other people, possibly people who they don't know very well, this puts them in a position of vulnerability to be pressured to do things such as use substances, engage in criminal activities or be victims to exploitation or abuse," she says.

Thompson says youth in these situations are not troubled, they're not choosing a bad path, they're individuals who need support.

"This program has been designed to reduce missing incidents, mitigate risks if youth choose to leave home again. We're excited to bring this program to Windsor-Essex," she says.  

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Lexi Conlon, Peer Support Worker at the Youth Wellness Hub, speaks during a news conference at Windsor Police Headquarters. Dec. 5, 2023 (Photo: Rusty Thomson)

Lexi Conlon, Peer Support Worker at the Youth Wellness Hub, says they want to be very honest and up front with the youth they help to built a rapport and trust so they can address their needs.

"Being patient and understanding that maybe they don't want to come in the first time and talk about everything, and that's okay. Maybe it's the second, third, fourth, who knows. Just making it so they know what's going on, where things are going and how it looks. That way they are also aware," she says.

The Return Support Discussion Program is supported by a $96,954 grant from the province's Victim Support Grant to support a full-time Peer Support Worker at the Youth Wellness Hub as well as fundamental education and training for frontline police officers.

The Youth Wellness Hub is located at 215 Eugenie St. W. in Windsor.

In addition, 200 backpacks and resources to promote wellness will be provided to the Youth Wellness Hub to distribute to youth that access this program.

Each backpack will include essentials to help young people survive on the streets, such as water, food, warm clothing, and hygiene products.