Breadcrumb trail

Submission to the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Persons Investigations conducted by the Toronto Police Service

Submitted by: Ms. Heidi Illingworth, Ombudsperson
Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime
November 2019


This submission is dedicated to:

Skandaraj Navaratnam
Abdulbasir Faizi
Majeed Kayhan
Soroush Mahmudi
Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam
Dean Lisowick
Selim Esen
Andrew Kinsman


The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC) is an independent resource that provides a voice for victims and survivors of crime at the federal level in Canada while ensuring that the federal government meets its commitments to victims of crime (Annex A). The OFOVC makes evidence-based recommendations founded on academic research and the lived experiences of victims to address issues of national interest relating to victims of crime. One such issue is the lived experience of Canadians whose loved ones have gone missing.

The intent of the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Person Investigations (the Review) is to evaluate how the Toronto Police Service (TPS) conducts missing person investigations, particularly in relation to Two-Spirited, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGBTQQIA) communities and vulnerable or marginalized communities. However, it is important to consider that the social phenomenon of missing persons is of national concern. Many of the people who go missing are the most vulnerable in our society. For example, they are often children or persons suffering from mental disorders or dementia. They can also be crime victims. It is concerning that—in terms of having dedicated investigators and a specialized approach—police resources are not equal to the scope of the problem in most parts of Canada.

In recent years, Canada has seen an epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country. The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) outlines 231 Calls for Justice that require immediate attention.1 Another reality is that more than one serial killer has been preying on marginalized and vulnerable citizens in Canada. The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (2012) expressed concern about the potential for sexual exploitation of runaway teenagers.2 Nearly a decade later, in a report entitled Domestic human trafficking for sexual exploitation in Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) inferred a connection between missing persons and the crime of human trafficking.3 In other words, there may be a link between missing persons and crime that is not fully appreciated by Canada’s law enforcement community.

When a loved one goes missing, their disappearance has serious effects on family members and friends. Being unable to locate a loved one and fearing for their safety is traumatic for family members who are likely to be overwhelmed with concern for the person’s well-being, anxious for answers, and uncertain about their loved one’s life and possible death. Those who are affected and left behind require information and support.

Often, family members and friends find that police minimize or summarily dismiss their concerns, causing them to feel devalued.4 This was particularly apparent prior to and during the TPS investigation of Bruce McArthur. Members of Toronto’s 2SLGBTQQIA community tried repeatedly to raise their concerns with the police only to receive victim-blaming responses. When community members suggested the possibility that a serial killer was behind the disappearances, they were not taken seriously. The situation was exacerbated because many of the people who were missing were racialized: some were from families who were newcomers to Canada or had precarious immigration status. This made them even more unlikely to interact with law enforcement officials. Police then blamed the community for not supporting the investigation. The frustration felt in the community ultimately undermined confidence in the police service.

It is critical that all police services develop long-term plans to improve their capacities to address missing person cases.

Missing persons in Canada

Defining a missing person

For diverse reasons, the definition of a missing person is multi-faceted. In Canada, a missing person is defined as “anyone reported to police or by police whose whereabouts are unknown, whatever the circumstances of their disappearance, and they are considered missing until located. A missing person under the age of 18 is classified as a missing child. In the case of a missing child, they are considered missing if they are no longer in the care or control of their legal guardian and have not been removed by law, and they are considered missing until returned to appropriate care and control.”5

Similarly, Dr. Karen Shalev Greene defines a missing person as an “individual whose whereabouts are unknown and where there is some concern for his or her wellbeing.”6 Shalev Greene, from the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, is a renowned researcher in the area of missing persons and runs the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons.

Despite the fact that missing persons are a social phenomenon that encompasses vast areas of interest, relatively little is known about those who go missing, what happens to them while they are missing, or what can be done to prevent these incidents from occurring. The issue affects people of all ages and social and cultural backgrounds. Shalev Greene (2017, 1) states that missing persons may include young children who are abducted, woman who are trafficked for sexual exploitation, or adults who have a mental illness or are living with dementia. According to recent research in the United Kingdom (UK), 80 percent of missing person cases involve mental health issues (Holmes 20177 ; Shalev Greene 2017).

It is concerning that certain population groups are more susceptible to going missing and have a higher risk of being harmed while missing. The Australian Institute of Criminology has identified particularly vulnerable groups:

While there are inherent risks attached to any missing event, specific population groups are recognised as particularly vulnerable to harm while missing. These include children under the age of 12, young people aged 13–17 years with a known vulnerability, persons with a mental illness (e.g. anxiety and depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other psychotic illness), persons expressing suicidal ideation, and those with dementia, an intellectual or physical disability or without lifesaving medication. Additional groups that may be at an elevated risk of harm include persons known or thought to have been last located in potentially life-threatening environmental conditions (e.g. lost at sea).8

The research suggests that it is important to adopt a rational, measured approach to missing persons that takes into account the diversity of people who go missing, the reasons why they go missing, and the varying levels of risk to their health and safety, including the risk of suicide. Police should consider the evidence provided by the reporting person and the risk factors to develop a clear definition that reflects the diverse communities of Canadians who can and do go missing, and should carefully assess the risk of harm that may arise in each case. Once the assessment is done, investigative priorities can be assigned.

The statistics

Canada lacks clear national data on how many people are missing long-term or considered missing endangered. More research is also needed to understand why people go missing in Canada.

According to the RCMP, from 2015 to 2018, approximately 295,000 Canadians disappeared.


Missing Adults

Missing Children














The RCMP statistics reveal that:

  • More children go missing than adults.
  • More female children go missing than male children.
  • Approximately 75 percent of missing children are labelled as runaways.
  • More male adults go missing than female adults.9

According to the RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains (NCMPUR), although the majority of the cases are resolved within a week (85 to 90 percent), there are still approximately 500 cases left unresolved each year.10 We do not know how many of these people have been victims of crime.

Thus, every year, 500 people leave behind family members, friends, colleagues and associates who worry about what has happened to a person who has suddenly disappeared from their lives. Some of those people will eventually find out: some of the missing persons will be found deceased and others will return. However, other people will never know what became of their loved one. Police agencies should be particularly mindful of the trauma created by the situation of a long-term missing person within a family. Loved ones left behind are relegated to a state of uncertainty with unanswered questions that cause extreme psychological distress, anxiety and complicated grief. While family members often maintain hope that their loved one will be found safe, many have difficulty coping with the uncertainty of the circumstances surrounding the disappearance. Often, they cannot move forward with their lives, and are left in a frozen state. Many will keep searching for their loved one indefinitely.

The Missing Women Commission of Inquiry (2012) highlighted the fact that, because it is not a crime to go missing as an adult, Statistics Canada does not track missing person data.11 Missing person investigations are conducted locally; the RCMP only maintains statistics on missing persons whose data are entered into the Canadian Police Information Centre database.12 Municipal and provincial police services can allow the lead investigator to publish a case on NCMPUR, but this website does not house profiles for all recorded missing persons and unidentified remains in Canada, nor does NCMPUR accept requests from families of the missing to have their cases published on the website, which is problematic. As a result, it is difficult to get a clear picture of how many people remain as long-term missing in Canada.

Missing persons’ investigations: use of evidence required

As noted above, assessing risk in missing person incidents is critical. Risk assessment is the key determinant for the level of investigative activity that follows, yet it remains sensitive to subjectivity and inconsistency.13 Shalev Greene argues that what police and policy-makers should initially consider is an acknowledgement of the risk and vulnerability of the missing person, and what initial efforts were made by the person reporting someone missing to locate them.14 Moreover, Shalev Greene (2019) claims that policy-makers should consider clarifying the role of the police in response to missing person reports within the broader context of police roles and responsibilities.

From an investigative perspective, scientific discoveries and the resulting derivative technologies have enabled the creation of a missing persons DNA database to help identify a number of the human remains discovered each year. This has led to the resolution of some missing person investigations.15

Useful as these tools may be, they fail to address the human side of the equation of missing person investigations. Sadly, there have been fewer advancements from a victim’s perspective. For example, not all missing person cases are even submitted to the RCMP’s NCMPUR website, nor do all families know they can submit samples to be tested against or housed in the three new humanitarian indices within the National DNA DataBank: The Missing Persons Index, The Human Remains Index and The Relatives of Missing Persons Index. This is concerning because many sets of human remains continue to be unidentified across Canada.

According to Policies and Practices in the Investigation of Missing Persons and Suspected Multiple Homicides, a report prepared for the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry in 2012, missing person investigations generally suffer from a lack of rigour in terms of policy, knowledge and process, and a lack of adherence on the part of investigators to the protocols that do exist.

Traditionally, there has been no established way for the police to determine if a missing person is the victim of foul play or if that person is likely to return home. Because of the lack of research, there is a lack of understanding as to why people go missing and who they are. This vacuum in police policy means that individual officers are more likely to rely on personal beliefs, myths and stereotypes rather than factual analysis in carrying out the risk assessment on each individual missing person report. Moving beyond stereotypes and making a risk assessment that reflects the real missing person is therefore a priority. The number of cases in which police assessments have proven inadequate, with tragic results, underscores the importance of developing improved policies and practices related to this issue.16

Families’ interactions with police services

Police services tend to focus their attention on the investigation rather than on the families and associates of the missing person. This can make missing person investigations more difficult and frustrating for all concerned.

In its 2005 report, Developing a Strategy to Provide Services and Support Victims of Unsolved, Serious Crimes, the Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime (CRCVC) summarized the research on victims’ needs for information about unsolved cases, including cases involving missing persons.In its research for this report, the CRCVC surveyed families of unsolved homicide and missing person cases, and noted that respondents said police were not immediately responsive when family members reported someone missing. The Centre also noted that police treated the missing person as a runaway or someone who had left on their own. This was difficult for families to accept, and made many feel that they were not important; they could not understand why police did not believe them.

About two thirds of victims (64 percent) said they were unsatisfied with the police investigation, and many felt there was a lack of timely action, sensitivity and communication. Seventy-four percent of respondents said police did not keep them regularly informed about what they were doing. Victims felt they had to initiate the contact with police in order to stay informed. One family member said, “Nothing to report is something to report.”

This research demonstrates, as do victim services reports, that police provide little specialized support to families of missing persons. Although they have experienced traumatic incidents, families are often not considered victims of crime. Consequently, they do not qualify for programs or services designed for crime victims.17 The report concludes that receiving information about the status of the investigation is crucial to the state of mind of family and community members whose loved one has gone missing. Experts in the field agree that denying victims access to information has a strong negative effect on their ability to cope with the situation. Conversely, offering regular updates not only provides victims with available facts about the investigation, but reassures them that neither they nor their loved one has been forgotten. While some details may need to be withheld for reasons relating to an eventual prosecution, other information can be shared freely.

Victims also report receiving limited to poor support and often dealing with investigators who appear indifferent to their concerns. While it is not the sole responsibility of police services to provide support to victims, federal/provincial/territorial legislation obliges police to inform victims about, and refer them to, victim services support programs.

Almost half (42%) of respondents said that police were not immediately responsive or were not appropriate in their responses when the crime was reported by family members. This refers mainly to families of missing persons. They complained that the missing person was treated as a runaway or someone who left on their own, not as a victim of foul play. While this may be an understandable position from a law enforcement view, it is difficult for families to accept. Many felt that they were not important, felt alienated, angry and foolish.18

Since frontline police members are not always familiar with the supports available to families of the missing, it is critical for them to make referrals to victim-service agencies. Victim services professionals will be familiar with two programs at the federal level that may be able help families of the missing.

  1. Family Information Liaison Units (FILUs)19 provide dedicated supports for family members of Indigenous women and girls enduring the loss of a loved one. The Units help families access available information about their missing and murdered loved ones from multiple government sources. The Units exist in every province and territory and build on the existing victim services frameworks in each region.

    FILUs are a “one-stop information service” for all families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The Units work directly with families to gather the information they seek from government agencies and to address outstanding questions about the loss of their loved ones.

    Staff provide services in a manner that is safe, culturally respectful and sensitive to the trauma experienced by families. If families need additional support, the Units will make connections between family members and cultural advisors, Elders or counselling services and programs, depending on the family’s wishes.

  2. The Canadian Benefit for Parents of Young Victims of Crime20 provides income support to parents in cases of missing children and youth. The death or disappearance of a child is devastating and can leave parents grief-stricken and unable to work. Federal income support is available for parents who take time away from work to cope with the death or disappearance of a child under the age of 25 (at the time of the incident) resulting from a probable criminal offence.

    The benefit provides eligible parents with payments of $450 per week every two weeks for a maximum of 35 weeks over a period of two years. Recipients can decide to stop receiving the benefit at any time and restart receipt at a later date within the two-year period.

Both of these federal programs are promising practices for families of the missing. However, while they do provide assistance, both have fairly limited eligibility criteria. This means many families of the missing may be excluded from benefiting from these programs.

Barriers to understanding

Lack of information, misinformation, myths, and bias and stereotypes regarding missing persons persist. These myths constitute barriers to understanding the root causes of disappearances and to the resolution of many investigations. For example, many members of the public mistakenly believe that only a family member can file a missing person report and that police will not accept a report unless the person has been missing for at least 24 to 48 hours.

At the same time, the rapid resolution of many missing person cases implies that some missing people may not really have been missing, but merely out of contact for a period considered excessive by the person reporting the disappearance. While all missing children are considered emergencies due to their vulnerability, in the case of adults, police are aware that some people choose to be out of contact; thus, they are less immediately concerned. In the case of adults who do not appear to be vulnerable, the police tend to rule out foul play very quickly without a thorough assessment of risk and vulnerability, or without examining the initial efforts made by the reporting person to locate them (Shalev Greene 2019).

Another important question is who has jurisdiction over a missing person. In the United Kingdom, many people go missing from hospitals and state-run facilities. Police agencies believe that these other agencies actually have responsibility for the people in their care but are downloading the problem onto them. As Shalev Greene (2019) notes, policy-makers should clarify the duty of care of each agency when a person who goes missing was in the care or guardianship of other agencies or the state.

While resources are available in the community to provide information, support and services, the OFOVC frequently hears from victims that they do not know where to turn for help. Families of missing persons are seeking useful and practical information to help them search and to cope. The current communication approach is to put everything on the Internet and assume that everyone has access. This is simply not the case, particularly among disadvantaged persons. Digital tools are not easily accessible for people who do not speak the language, people with disabilities, people who are not literate, and people who are poor and/or homeless. In addition, people who are suffering from high stress due to the unexplained disappearance of a loved one may need a more personalized approach.

Bias in policing

Personal and cultural biases can actively hinder the effectiveness of all interpersonal communication, whether personal or professional. They can also impede job performance. Communication is one of the most important aspects of policing: so much police work depends on officers’ abilities both to extract and convey information that there is no room for the invisible yet powerful barriers to communication caused by bias.

Another way to describe bias is a lack of objectivity. Investigators who are unaware of their biases, or who do not make efforts to control them, have the potential to compromise investigations through a lack of objectivity, leading to faulty decision-making. As an example, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) identifies “…officers appearing to make investigative decisions based on prejudicial stereotypes and inaccurate beliefs and attitudes about Indigenous women and girls.”21 This may also have been an issue in the McArthur case, with the assumption made that adult men cannot be victims of a predator or serial killer.

A related issue is the victim-blaming mentality. Victim-blaming occurs when assumptions are made that an individual did something to cause or contribute to their victimization. Perhaps the definition of a missing person is again important to address here to help deconstruct the victim-blaming approach. For example, “runaway” is a problematic label that police often use when children disappear. In fact, children who run away are often facing violence, exploitation or abuse in their homes or foster homes and are trying to escape those circumstances. They should be seen as particularly vulnerable, given their young age, lack of decision-making ability and inability to consent. People with mental health challenges who go missing are also vulnerable. Victim-blaming may lead police to assign a lower priority to an investigation. It is not an appropriate approach to take under any circumstances.

As mentioned earlier, the definition of a missing person should include two components: it should acknowledge the person’s risk and vulnerability (for example, if they are at risk for suicide); and it should acknowledge the initial efforts made by the person reporting someone missing to locate them. The notion of the missing individual’s well-being should be discussed explicitly in relation to their physical and mental well-being and how police officers are expected to determine these (Shalev Greene 2019).

Research about missing persons has led to the development of a typology of “missing” based around the concept of intentionality. Different approaches have been adopted, all of which have tried to encapsulate the ways in which different “types” of missing incidents seem to suggest different levels of intentionality on the part of the missing person. Intentionality is not a fixed state, as many in the police force tend to believe (and use as their default position); a missing person may have different intentions at different points in time while missing. Thus, intentionality as a concept highlights the complexities of understanding the notion of “missing.”22

The display of bias, whether conscious or unconscious, also undermines citizens’ confidence and trust in public institutions, including the criminal justice system.23 Police need to change their default position to one of compassion and concern for all people.

The Toronto Police Service and missing persons

As Canada’s largest metropolis, the City of Toronto is home to a richly diverse population of millions. Every year, some 4,300 of those citizens disappear.24 Despite the high number of annual disappearances, the TPS did not have an investigative unit dedicated to missing persons until July 1, 2018, when it introduced a missing persons unit as a subsection of its homicide unit. The sub-unit consists of two lead detectives, four detective constables as investigators and one analyst.

The TPS publishes press releases with information about individuals who go missing and makes the information available on its website; it also publishes a release if or when a missing person is found. The TPS missing person web page has links to other organizations that could be of assistance to victims, but there is no narrative to explain what the organizations are or how they may help. The TPS Public Safety Data Portal25 has no mention of missing person statistics.

The terms of reference for the TPS Board’s Independent Civilian Review into Missing Persons Investigations explicitly mention that:

…members and groups within the LGBTQ2S+ communities in the City of Toronto have expressed concern over the manner in which the Toronto Police Service handle and have handled missing person investigations, and specifically, the investigations into the disappearance of Mr. McArthur’s victims, including concerns that the handling of missing person investigations in the City of Toronto may have been tainted by implicit or explicit, specific and systemic bias…there are intersections of minorities within the LGBTQ2S+ communities, including South Asian, Middle Eastern, 2-spirited, other racialized individuals, as well as those who are either homeless or work in the sex trade that are particularly vulnerable and require an improved approach to policing relationships (…).26

In its 2017 Action Plan: The Way Forward – Modernizing Community Safety in Toronto, the TPS acknowledges both the need for and the difficulty of effecting culture change:

The starting point for modernization, supported by experts and best practices, is that successful culture change requires a comprehensive approach that considers all the ways in which culture is embedded in an organization. In particular, it needs to focus on four key strategic fronts:

  • Leadership and decision-making.
  • People management and human resources strategies.
  • Structures and business processes.
  • Use of technology and management information.

Our plan takes this kind of comprehensive approach. It includes powerful and profound change levers that go well beyond any previous reports and recommendations and affect all aspects of the Service and at all levels. It also includes a very different approach to measuring and demonstrating active accountability for progress and results.27

More can be done to improve both the quality of missing person investigations and families’ experiences with law enforcement personnel. Investigations can be improved by providing investigators with clear policies, guidelines and procedures to inform the process, and by educating them on how to navigate the contexts in which investigations take place. Police can improve families’ experiences by adopting a trauma-informed approach in interviews, treating all persons who report with respect and consideration, and making immediate referrals to victim support services, which are designed to support families in tragic circumstances.28

Recommendations to improve service to families of the missing

In the spirit of the Review’s mandate to make recommendations to promote not only efficient, effective and bias-free investigations, but also better police relations with affected communities, the OFOVC has prepared the following recommendations to improve policies and procedures in missing person investigations.

1. Ensure all long-term missing persons’ cases are profiled on the Toronto Police Service website and allow families to submit cases online.

People go missing from every community and jurisdiction in Canada. Consequently, we need a consistent law enforcement response. It is also true that many cases are solved with the assistance of the public. Ensuring that all cases are profiled publicly, whether through the TPS website or NCMPUR, increases the likelihood of identifications, closed cases and resolution for families. When families of the missing can submit their cases online, they feel believed, respected and empowered by police. NamUS in the United States allows family and community members to submit cases and, as a result, be meaningfully involved in trying to determine what happened to their loved ones.29

2. Create a multidisciplinary missing persons team, incorporating non-investigative personnel to provide a holistic and compassionate response in missing person cases.

A multidisciplinary team would consist of dedicated investigators, analysts and social workers who work with victims (family members and associates). This approach would free up investigators to investigate while providing trained personnel to perform other tasks, such as updating files, extracting and compiling data, and communicating with and supporting family members/victims.

This team could recognize and navigate the mosaic of contributing factors that may lead to a person going missing without blaming the victim or relying on stereotypes or misconceptions. There are many intersecting, systemic factors that affect people who go missing, such as mental health, poverty, neglect, substance abuse, domestic violence, prostitution, human trafficking, historical trauma and victimization, location or jurisdiction (Figure 1). It is essential to understand the victimology—and the victim’s life and relationships—as part of the investigation.

Figure 1
Systemic Factors

According to James Walters, an American Amber Alert administrator and law enforcement official, a review of more than 50 cases of missing, abducted and endangered victims shows there are lessons to be learned in five key areas:

  • pre-planning and training
  • call intake
  • initial response
  • communications and coordination
  • neighbourhood investigation, search and canvass30

Response officers also need to be aware of the impact of a missing loved one on their relatives, including embarrassment, guilt, fear of disapproval or judgment, fear of negative reactions by their loved one (for reporting), and desire to protect their loved one. These are all reasons they may not report immediately. Officers should remain non-judgmental in their responses and inform family members that they did the right thing by making a missing persons report. Ongoing communication is particularly important, both with regard to the intake of missing person reports and the provision of information to interested parties. Deploying specially trained personnel to conduct intake interviews is critical to obtaining the information needed to pursue the investigation. The first priority is to determine whether the missing person is a child or otherwise vulnerable. If so, a priority response must ensue to address endangered victims. If not, then the intake officer should ask what steps the reporting person may have taken already to locate the missing person, and let them know what steps they should take before the police open an investigation.

As noted above, providing information to interested parties is crucially important to their state of mind. Explaining to them how missing person investigations are conducted, what the steps are and how they can help will contribute to a better understanding of and a greater satisfaction with the investigative process.

The development of multidisciplinary teams has been recommended to address a variety of criminal investigations, particularly in instances of abuse (e.g., child, elder, sexual or domestic abuse).31 32 This approach has also been adopted by the Vancouver Police to respond to child protection, mental health, youth probation and high-risk youth cases.33

3. Develop a checklist-based missing person protocol.

The OFOVC recommends this approach as an alternative to the traditional, non-standardized approach to investigation and analysis of missing person cases, which has been largely ineffective in providing resolutions, as noted above.

Deficits in investigations are attributed to everything from a lack of training to a lack of engagement to a lack of experience. These types of deficits could easily be remedied by adopting a defined protocol, such as the one developed in Scotland.34. A checklist-based protocol would:

  • Provide a standardized investigative framework, based on evidence, for all missing person investigations and ensure that investigators follow identical steps, including assessing the risk and vulnerability of each person reported missing.
  • Adopt a clearly laid out, stepped approach and service standards as well as a brought-forward system that would cue a team member to reach out to the person who made the initial report. Such contact could be a two-way information exchange.
  • Reduce the risk of information gaps and the potential for errors due to inexperience, lack of knowledge, bias and lack of rigour.
  • Serve as a key document in the electronic file that could be consulted at will by all team members and managers, enabling instant access to status quo. This would facilitate progress reviews and information updates to interested parties.
  • Centralize and systematize data collection and facilitate retrieval and analysis.35

The checklist must not be viewed as merely “ticking boxes.” Rather, each level of a missing person investigation must be completed before moving to the next. Investigators should also be trained to understand that the process of completing the checklist has value in investigative terms.

Some police services have already adopted a protocol approach. Examples include the New Jersey State Police and Scotland.36 As stipulated in the Final Report of the National Inquiry for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019), establishing a national standard protocol for missing person cases is of utmost importance. It may also be beneficial to devise a clear and consistent protocol for identifying, triaging, distributing, monitoring and evaluating people and families who are at greatest risk.37

4. Communicate regularly with families.

In missing person cases, poor communication with families is the number one cause of dissatisfaction with police services.38 Providing regular updates is, arguably, part of the legitimate work of a police service, even when there has been little to no progress in the investigation. In addition to lack of communication, families also indicate dissatisfaction with how police communicate with them. As noted above, communication with families is a task best undertaken by a social worker on the integrated missing person investigation team or a victim services professional.

One way to communicate with families is through a secure website with information about the case. Case numbers and personal identifiers could be issued for security purposes. If an investigator has information that should be imparted in person, but has been unable to contact the family, a message could be left on the website asking the family to get in touch. There could also be a function for family members to change their contact information, if needed.

5. Focus on training police personnel to improve their performance.         

Police personnel would benefit from:

  • cultural competence and humility training
  • training on trauma-informed interview techniques
  • increased awareness of the provisions of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights
  • accepting third-party reports (where community agencies are designated to make anonymous reports to the police)

Cultural competence and humility training

Cultural competence is a requirement for police work, given that in every corner of our country, there is a space shared between people of different ages, ethnicities, physical and mental abilities, religious beliefs, gender expressions, socio-economic statuses and political views. As public servants, police officers serve all citizens.

One of the major barriers to true culture change at the TPS is that the organization does not fully represent the population it serves. Making the TPS fully representative of Torontonians is the first step toward increased cultural competence.

Training personnel to be conscious of their biases and to strive to suppress the effects of these biases on investigations should be a priority for all police services. The education process should go beyond merely sensitizing police service employees to cultural differences. It should encompass respect for differences, acceptance of the equal validity of all cultures, and openness to learning from them. While each employee should be able to demonstrate the minimum level of cultural competence appropriate to their role in the service, each level of management should be held accountable for the cultural competence of the employees they supervise.

Building cultural humility is as essential as other policing competency requirements, such as physical fitness or firearms training. That is, it is a fundamental component of effective, modern police work.39 Police personnel need to connect with their humility, feel at ease with not knowing, and be open and ready to learn from others. Infusing cultural humility throughout the criminal justice system would open up greater potential to establish trust; in turn, victims and survivors would be more likely to report victimization and to feel engaged and supported within the criminal justice system.

Moreover, sensitization about and respect for human dignity, particularly among vulnerable populations—such as homeless people, people with mental illnesses, and sex workers—is essential. Police personnel should be encouraged to think of enhanced awareness and sensitivity as critical tools to help improve their performance.

Measures of competencies related to the elements outlined above should be incorporated into performance evaluations at all levels; the competencies must be demonstrated at appropriate minimum levels to maintain employment, and at superior levels to attain promotion.

Trauma-informed interview techniques

In The Impact of Trauma on Adult Sexual Assault Victims, the Department of Justice Canada recommends all “…criminal justice professionals to have specialized in-depth training and education across all sectors of the system on the neurobiology of trauma, violence, and abuse, and the social contexts of victim responses.”40

The trauma-informed approach takes into account the effects that a crime has on the victim—such as shock, disassociation and memory-impairment—and prompts investigators to focus on allowing a victim to express themselves without interruption rather than using an interrogative question-and-answer technique.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the RCMP recently acknowledged the need to change the approach taken to interviewing witnesses and victims; the latter is taking steps to train personnel accordingly. It is important to note that such an approach is not just appropriate for sexual assault cases, but in all cases involving traumatic incidents where a sensitive and compassionate approach is required.

Applying a trauma-informed approach also entails using evidence from missing person research to inform police policy and investigations in terms of assessing risk and vulnerability and making initial efforts made to locate missing persons.

The Canadian Victims Bill of Rights

Enacted in 2015, the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights (CVBR)41 establishes statutory rights of victims to information, protection and participation and to seek restitution, and it ensures that a complaint process is in place when breaches of these rights by a federal department or agency occur.

Ensuring that victims are informed of—and enabled to exercise—their rights under the CVBR is an obligation of all criminal justice personnel.

However, the OFOVC has heard from victims that there is no clarity around who is responsible for providing victims with information. This issue is complicated by the fact that victims, who are often traumatized, can have difficulty hearing and processing information. This is why a multidisciplinary team approach—with access to personnel (such as psychologists or social workers) who have expertise in providing services to traumatized people—is so important. A worker from this team could be responsible for keeping victims updated on the progress of the investigation.

The importance of providing referrals to victim-serving agencies

Community agencies that work with people who have experienced traumatic incidents can be a key support network for individuals who report missing loved ones. Victims have told the OFOVC that they often feel isolated and unsupported. This can lead to difficulties in coping with the stress of the unexplained disappearance of a loved one. Second only to the need for information about the investigation, victims need information about the services and supports available to them. This is particularly true in the case of a long-term missing person.

However, because they are not often seen as de facto crime victims, people who report missing loved ones often do not have access to the same resources. This does not mean that support is not available, just that victims often do not know where to find it. A social worker attached to the investigative team could provide information to these victims on how to find the support they need.

For example, a social worker could provide information about support groups in the community. Family members of homicide victims have told the OFOVC how important having a support group has been for them; some have said that the support they received from the peer group literally saved their lives.

Victim services and other community-based agencies can also be equipped to accept third-party reports from families and individuals who hesitate to report to law enforcement directly for a variety of reasons. Third-party reporting (TPR) occurs when someone else reports the crime to the police. It allows victims who do not want to report the crime directly to ensure police receive a report about the crime. TPR empowers individuals to come forward and report crime to community-based services that are viewed as more accessible to them.

TPR creates a space for victims to report crime and access support services without going to the police. As applied to sexual assault, TPR is a process allowing a survivor to report the crime through a community-based organization (such as a victim-assistance program or sexual assault centre) which then shares the information anonymously with police. The province of British Columbia has a province-wide protocol for TPR of sexual assault, where victims of sex crimes may report their assault to police through a community-based victim-service program.42

TPR protects the victim’s identity while allowing police to get the information they need to report on occurrences of sexual assault. The RCMP has committed to working with interested jurisdictions and communities to explore the expansion of TPR for sexual assault incidents.

We believe TPR could be applied to the reporting of missing persons as well, especially in cases where the victim is particularly vulnerable or from racialized or marginalized communities. It is important to create a supportive environment where affected persons or families feel safe reporting their missing loved ones. TPR through culturally appropriate support programs could present a viable option for victims who have reservations about interacting with police and the criminal justice system.

6. Improve data collection.

It is critical to improve data collection and ensure that data are recorded consistently across jurisdictions and nationally so we can clearly understand the scope of the problem of missing persons in Canada.

Lack of data and errors in collection and recording regarding missing persons are deeply problematic. Under-reporting leads to distorted perceptions of the severity of a situation, whether it is an outbreak of disease or a murder. Analysis based on deficient data results in poor policy and poor decision-making.

For example, the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019) cited these types of errors as a source of misinformation about the true scope of the crimes targeting Indigenous people. Specifically, the failure of police services to collect and record precise data regarding ethnicity contributed directly to the lack of clarity around how many Indigenous people were missing or murdered.43

In this context, the lack of statistical data concerning missing persons on the TPS Public Safety Data Portal is troubling. Given that TPS receives some 4,300 reports of missing persons annually, the dedicated team should reflect the needs and complexities of these investigations. Without proper data measurement and analysis, organizations have no means of determining the effectiveness of policies and programs and no way to know whether resources are adequate, appropriately allocated and used, or insufficient; nor is there any way of knowing whether the organization is successful or partially successful, or what improvements might need to be made. The checklist-based protocol approach recommended by the OFOVC could partially address the data gaps issue if information collected via the checklist is entered into a database systematically.

Finally, given that policing is a public service, measures that gauge public satisfaction should be introduced. That is, are those who seek services from police satisfied with the level of service they receive? If so, why? If not, why not?

7. Launch an ongoing public awareness campaign.

Time is the enemy of both victims and police in missing person cases. It is important to encourage the community to report immediately when they are concerned about the well-being of a missing loved one.

While loved ones of missing persons may have the greatest need for information, the public can also benefit from a public awareness campaign that:

  • tells citizens to report immediately and explains what steps to take if a loved one goes missing;
  • familiarizes citizens with the support resources available in the community;
  • prompts those who are out of touch with loved ones to make contact, either directly or through law enforcement or a service agency; and
  • publishes clear and detailed information about how a missing person investigation is conducted, including the checklist and all steps that are taken to try to find a person who has disappeared.

The City of Toronto has websites, social media, subway stations, police stations, courts, libraries, municipal offices, cultural centres, athletic facilities and parks that can be used as information hubs. In addition, other organizations, such as municipal housing, food banks, homeless shelters, hospitals, schools and religious institutions, can be leveraged to communicate with hard-to-reach audiences. There is also a host of social services and non-profit organizations dedicated to serving the needs of victims. In short, there are many channels of communication available for the TPS to provide citizens with needed information.

Some these channels can also be mobilized quickly to broadcast information about missing persons in the context of a public appeal for assistance and information. Timing is very important to the successful resolution of a missing person case, and tips from the public can speed up the process.44 For example, Amber Alerts have proven to be very effective in cases of missing children.

The value of transparency in public service is inestimable. Citizens demand and are entitled to know what public servants are doing and how. Thus, providing clear, detailed information about policing policies, practices and investigations is a requisite part of the public service of policing. An informed public is more likely to appreciate, approve and utilize a service that accords them the courtesy and respect they deserve.

Sharing information with the public could help reduce the number of calls about people who are out of touch with their family but are not considered endangered. It could result in an informed, engaged citizenry that could sometimes help resolve cases by providing information that police have been unable to obtain in other ways. It could also lead to greater public confidence and satisfaction in the police service.


At the OFOVC, we have learned from our direct work with families of the missing that when a loved one is reported missing, those left behind will never stop searching for them. A high level of hope endures—hope that they will one day find their relative safe. In other cases, there is hope that they may at least bring their relative home to be laid to rest or to enter the spirit world. Some family members also yearn for justice and accountability for loved ones who have been victims of crime. Our work with families has also taught us that the emotional impact of a missing loved one on families and friends is considerable. Each person is affected in their own way, and will react differently. Culturally sensitive and holistic supports are necessary to help families of the missing cope with the trauma created by this extraordinary situation.

While the introduction of a missing persons unit is a positive step forward for the TPS, a multidisciplinary team approach with dedicated investigators, specialized training, clear and rigorous investigative protocols and standards, scrupulous attention to maintaining accurate statistics, and accountability to victims and their families is essential to ensure effective and meaningful missing persons investigations.

As the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime, I call on the TPS and all other police services in Canada to take note of our recommendations and use them to conduct thorough assessments of risk and vulnerability in their investigations, and to provide trauma-informed responses and supports to families of the missing. Specifically, I call on the TPS and all Canadian police services to adopt a community-based approach to policing, with a victim-centred and people-first emphasis on providing services to citizens who report loved ones missing.

Summary of recommendations

  1. Ensure all long-term missing persons’ cases are profiled on the TPS website and allow families to submit cases online.
  2. Create a multidisciplinary missing persons team, incorporating non-investigative personnel, to provide a holistic and compassionate response in missing person cases.
  3. Develop a checklist-based missing person protocol.
  4. Communicate regularly with families.
  5. Focus on training police personnel to improve their performance, including:
    • cultural competence and humility training
    • training on trauma-informed interview techniques
    • increased awareness of the provisions of the Canadian Victims Bill of Rights
    • accepting third-party reports (where community agencies are designated to make anonymous reports to the police)
  6. Improve data collection.
  7. Launch an ongoing public awareness campaign.



BACKGROUND – The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime

The Office of the Federal Ombudsman for Victims of Crime (OFOVC) was created in 2007 to be an independent resource for victims in Canada and to ensure the federal government meets its responsibilities to victims of crime.

The OFOVC’s mandate relates exclusively to matters of federal jurisdiction and enables the Office to:

  • promote victims’ access to federal programs and services for victims;
  • address victims’ complaints about compliance with the provisions of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act that apply to victims of crimes committed by offenders under federal jurisdiction;
  • promote awareness of the needs and concerns of victims of crime and the applicable laws that benefit them, including the principles set out in the Canadian Statement of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime with respect to matters of federal jurisdiction among criminal justice personnel and policy-makers;
  • identify and review emerging and systemic issues—including those related to programs and services provided or administered by the Department of Justice or the Department of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness—that negatively affect victims of crime; and facilitate victims’ access to federal programs and services by providing them with information and referrals.



1 Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019);

6 Shalev Greene, Karen and Llian Alys (Eds). Missing Persons: A handbook of research. London: Routledge, 2017

7 Holmes, Lucy. “I Just Felt Like I Was in a Cage”: Examining the Accounts of Returned Missing Adults With Mental Health Issues. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 25, 5-26, 2017

8 Bricknell, Samantha. Missing Persons: Who is at risk? Australian Institute of Criminology, 2017

13 Bricknell, Samantha. Missing Persons: Who is at risk? Australian Institute for Criminology, 2017

15 Alvarez-Cubero, María J., Maria Saiz, Luis Martinez-Gonzalez, J. Carlos Alvarez, and Arthur Eisenberg. Genetic Identification of Missing Persons: DNA Analysis of Human Remains and Compromised Samples. Pathobiology: Journal of Immunopathology, Molecular and Cellular Biology, 79, 228-38, 2012

22 Shalev Greene, Karen and Llian Alys (Eds). Missing Persons: A handbook of research. London: Routledge, 2017

23 Wortley, S. and Owusu-Bempah, A. Street Checks, Racial Profiling and Police-Community Relations: A Review of the Research Literature. Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, 2019, p.82

28 Missing Women Commission of Inquiry: Towards More Effective Missing Women Investigations - Police Relationships with Victims’ Families, the Community and the Media. 2012

30 Walters, James (2019). MMIWG 2019. National Missing and Unidentified Persons Conference, September 16-18, 2019, Las Vegas, NV

31 Boles, Anita B. and John C. Patterson. Improving Community Response to Crime Victims an Eight-Step Model for Developing Protocol. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. 1996

32 National Framework for Collaborative Police Action on Intimate Partner Violence (IPV). The Canadian Observatory on the Justice System’s Response to Intimate Partner Violence, University of New Brunswick, March 2016

36 Ibid

37 Shalev Greene, Karen, Craig John Robert Collie. Protecting Vulnerable Persons and Reducing Demand of Police Time and Resources using Assistive Technology: Evaluation Report. Institute for Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, 2017

39 Wolf, Rainer Leenen (Ed.). Enhancing intercultural competence in police organizations. New York: Waxmann, 2002

44 Drivsholm, Mette, Delphine Moralis, Karen Shalev Greene, and Penny Woolnough. Once missing never forgotten: Results of scoping research on the impact of publicity appeals in missing children cases