Every year in Canada, thousands of people are reported missing and often it’s not clear why they go missing, or even the best way to find them.
Lorna Ferguson, a Western sociology PhD student who went missing a couple of times herself as a teenager, is on the case.
Her Missing Persons Research Hub, launched in January, is a national networking and research forum for those in the field of missing persons in Canada.
The open-access hub is home to a peer-reviewed research database as well as reports and policy documents, a discussion forum, a blog and a podcast.
The goal, Ferguson said, is to improve evidence-based work as it relates to missing persons.
The hub is already getting noticed. It’s one of the featured projects in CIBC’s Remarkable Students Competition, in which the public can vote for their favourites and student project leaders stand to win up to $10,000.
“A lot of people are doing great research on this in Canada but we’re doing it in our own little pockets,” Ferguson said. “I want to make research more accessible.”
The hub features recent studies suggesting potential for harnessing social media such as TikTok and Twitter to help find missing people. It also highlights work on strategies to manage dementia-related wandering; on “going missing” as a maladaptive coping mechanism for adults under stress; and on media coverage of missing persons.
Ferguson’s own experience with going missing was relatively minor. She was a self-described troublemaker as a child and teen, and her family reported her missing a couple of times. She was once escorted home by police officers.
“It wasn’t dramatic. In fact, missing persons is often more mundane than we are led to believe from media reports,” she said. “My parents told me to do things I didn’t want to do, so I took off.”
That’s not to say missing persons cases can’t be dramatic and wrenching.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls found that untold thousands of Indigenous women– each person encompassing a story and a tragedy –have been killed or have disappeared across the years and generations of colonialism.
But there are other cases, too.
They include seniors with dementia who wander and are found hours later, and teens who leave group homes, only to return soon afterwards.
According to the RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, between 70,000 and 80,000 people are reported missing in Canada every year and most are found within seven days. But as Ferguson and other researchers have pointed out, there is a disconnect between the reality of missing persons and what ends up in that database.
The RCMP acknowledges even its centre doesn’t represent current numbers of missing persons cases. That’s because these cases fall under the purview of municipal, provincial or territorial police forces.
“We have no available information on the reasons for why these incidents occur, the contributing factors, whether cases are resolved or open,” Ferguson said.
Her PhD supervisor, Western sociology professor Laura Huey, agreed that the data are unreliable and researchers are operating in the dark. It’s a social problem the public seems not to care about “unless it involves a serial killer,” Huey said.
That’s what makes Ferguson’s hub – the only resource of its kind in the country – so valuable.
“We’ve got systems that don’t talk to each other and no basis for making good policy decisions around missing persons,” said Huey, a criminologist who studies policing.
When Ferguson came to her for advice on creating the hub, Huey was impressed by her energy and enthusiasm for the project.
“She threw herself into this topic with a ferocity I’ve never seen.This is a second-year PhD student with no resources. This is something she started all on her own.”
Ferguson is the site’s architect, content generator, coder, audio editor and researcher – all while keeping up with her studies. Her dissertation, which will eventually be available on her hub, examines police search and investigative practices around missing persons in Canada. She is working with more than 30 different forces to collect the data, and sharing her findings with them as she goes. “I don’t do research so it can sit behind a paywall,” she said.