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New Windsor program to connect young people who flee home with support workers after they are located

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With the number of young people who have gone missing in Windsor and Amherstburg — between hours and weeks at a time — having increased since last year, a new program by the Youth Wellness Hub and the Windsor Police Service aims to ensure the first time they go missing is the last.

On Tuesday, officials with the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) joined Windsor police officers to announce the launch of the Return Support Discussion Program.

The program works by connecting people between 12 and 25 years old who have been located with a support worker at the Youth Wellness Hub.

"I'm proud to say this program is the first of its kind in Canada and will be used as a prototype in other communities across this country," said Windsor's deputy police Chief Jason Crowley.

According to the CMHA, the program aims to provide missing persons with a "safe space" so they can voluntarily and confidentially share their experience with the support worker and explain why they went missing in the first place.

The worker would also help identify any harms or risks the individual may have faced while they were away from home.

Some exceptions apply when it comes to confidentially, particularly when it comes the risk of self-harm or matters involving people younger than 16 years old.

"We start every session with that — that these are the situations where we would ever have to share anything, and that's just to get you the support you need and make sure you're safe. Otherwise, everything stays in this room," said Youth Wellness Hub operations manager Angela Thompson.

According to the Windsor Police Service, 97 people between the ages of 12 and 25 have gone missing in Windsor and Amherstburg since the start of the 2023 calendar year.

That number was at 89 the year prior. Considering many of those individuals left home more than once, police said they filed 679 individual missing reports in 2022.

As part of the Return Support Discussion Program, "survival backpacks" will be offered to young people who are referred.

They contain supplies that a person can carry with them so they can be safe in the event that they leave home more than once.

"It really follows our harm reduction model of working with them where they're at," said Thompson, adding any youth who has a missing report filed in them is automatically referred to the program.

"If youth are declining or they're not interested in the support at that time, we won't keep knocking at the door. We'll just be letting you know that we are here if you change your mind or if you need support of any kind."

According to Ron Bracovici, missing person investigations risk coordinator with Windsor police, evidence-based research has indicated frequent disappearances are the "number one indicator of exploitation for children and youth and the least likely to be detected."

"The Return Support Discussion addresses previously unknown and undisclosed youth harm in our community," he said.

Bracovici added youth can go missing as often as multiple times in a day or as long as three weeks straight.

The program is expected to run as a pilot for one year, with provincial grant funding expected to support its first three months of operations. 

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