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Tips from public prove valuable to missing-children investigators

Dec 07 2011

Something as simple as a parent and child "just not looking right" can be all it takes to solve an abduction case, said the executive director of the Missing Children Society of Canada.

Such a tip led to the arrest this fall of Helen Gavaghan, who now faces child abduction charges in relation to her disappearance in 2008 with her then four-year-old daughter, Pearl.

"An individual on a subway got a gut feeling that there was something not quite right with the mother and daughter she saw," society executive director Amanda Pick said. "She called the police, who acted on it immediately."

Shortly after, the girl was identified as Pearl Gavaghan da Massa. Her father, Henry, had been searching for his former spouse and daughter since they went missing from the couple's home in Manchester in 2008.

The society received a tip that was passed to Toronto police in September that led to the arrest last week of Patricia O'Byrne, who had lived in Victoria since the early 2000s. She went by the name Pamela Whelan. Her daughter was known as Thea Whelan.

All tips that come to the society are guaranteed to remain anonymous. The society would only say that the tip leading to O'Byrne's arrest was strong. It included the assumed names and that they were on Vancouver Island.

Tips are first investigated by a team of retired police officers who work for the society.

The investigators discount nothing, said Wendy Christensen, manager of investigations. Tips can range from psychics with premonitions to a former spouse following their gut instinct, she said.

Parental abduction in Canada is a "huge problem" and the investigators will hunt down any tip they get, she said.

Parental abduction is often minimized by society, in part because so many people have had negative experiences with custodial disputes, and also view parental abductions as

"victimless," Christensen said.

Perceptions of parental abduction need to change, she explained. No parent has a right to take a child from their other parent, unless there is a threat to the child's health and safety.

"If it's a stranger abduction, the immediate reaction is that the child is in danger," Christensen said. "When a parent takes a child, we think it's still a loving parent, so it's not really a crime, but it is."

Her group receives about one inquiry a week regarding a parent taking a child.

RCMP statistics put parental abduction at about 250 to 300 incidents a year.

B.C. is among the provinces with the highest rate of parental abductions reported to police in 2009, a Missing Children Society of Canada report found.

A total of 237 parental abductions were reported in 2009. The report said the figure could include children who ran away in previous years and were found in 2009.

Of the parental abduction reports in 2009:

• 94 were in Ontario, followed by Quebec at 56, B.C. with 37, and Manitoba at 16.

• Parental abductions were down in 2009 to their lowest level in a decade.

• 41 per cent of the children were less than five years old, 31 per cent were from six to 11, and 28 per cent were from 12 to 17.

• 68 per cent went missing from their family home, while seven per cent were from a foster home or child care.

• 58 per cent of the missing reports were removed within 24 hours.

• 127 had no custody order in place, while the remainder had such an order.

• 125 males and 112 females were reported missing.

dspalding@timescolonist.com

cjwilson@timescolonist.com

kwestad@timescolonist.com

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