SURREY — Twenty-five years ago, when Sonya Boyce began volunteering in transition homes for women fleeing abuse, she was taught a hard and fast rule: Never, ever tell anyone the identity of its residents.
Not family. Not police. Not child protection services.
“It was a brick wall,” she recalled, sitting in her office at Surrey Women’s Centre in Whalley where she now serves as executive director.
“But for good reason.”
Protecting the anonymity, and thus safety, of women and children fleeing violence was of utmost importance. Though necessary, that made it hard for police to carry out missing person investigations in these cases.
Today in Surrey, things are a little bit different, thanks to the Surrey Missing Women’s Network. Though not highly publicized, Boyce said the initiative is making a big difference.
The network began in 2007 during a time when RCMP were integrating lessons learned from the Robert Pickton case, the infamous Port Coquitlam pig farmer who was convicted of second-degree murder in the deaths of six women.
Dozens more women went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside during the early 1980s through to the early 2000s, which led to the creation of the Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.
“(Former B.C. Attorney General Wally) Oppal talked about the need to increase communication and co-operation between law enforcement and community-based agencies,” Boyce said.
In Surrey, that advice was taken and the network was born.
Today, Surrey RCMP utilizes the network several times a week said Sgt. Holly Turton, officer in charge of Surrey’s Vulnerable Persons Section, which includes the detachment’s Missing Persons Unit. Last year alone, Surrey’s MPU dealt with 2,334 files.
Included in that number are women and children fleeing domestic abuse who are reported missing. Sometimes, that report is made in an attempt by their abuser to find out where they are.
When abuse is suspected, the Surrey Missing Women’s Network springs into action.
Police contact the Surrey Women’s Centre, which then sends out an alert to more than 200 people, all who are likely to come into contact with women fleeing abuse.
When a woman is located, police are notified and the case is closed. Her location is only revealed if she gives the OK.
Turton said the network is a godsend.
“It’s an exceptional idea,” she remarked. “Missing person investigations are very laborious. There’s a lot of investigate steps to locate people, especially when they don’t want to be found. What I found was that this really alleviated some of those issues.”
She acknowledged the issues that coincide with transition homes sharing the identity of its tenants and said the network “gets around that for us.”
It also saves police resources, freeing up man-hours to work on other missing person cases.
“Typically our policy is to go and confirm the well-being of somebody,” she explained. “But when we hear from the Surrey Missing Women’s Network that the person is safe, we don’t need to go to that transition home to have that meeting.”
Another benefit is it’s less intrusive for women in such situations, noted Turton. And, if transition homes are in covert locations, police don’t give it away by having to visit the home.
“The things that we’ve been able to accomplish together have been absolutely amazing,” said Turton.
“If and when (a victim of abuse) needs police and support, we want to make sure she picks up the phone.”