10 DECEMBER 2003


Memories of Justin Pollari are kept in a canvas briefcase that his parents carry along in their search for him.

Panic, fear, hope on runaway trail

The teen vanished at 14, up and ran one night from his home in a remote island village, south of Sault Ste. Marie. He took his backpack, a few clothes and a skateboard and, in all likelihood, headed for the big city. He left two years ago today and has never been heard from. Not once. He joined the ranks of more than 67,000 cases of “missing children” in Canada that year, a figure that has climbed by the thousands since 1994 and which takes into account kidnappings, parental abductions and unexplained disappearances as well as runaways.

But kidnappings, like the tragic abduction of 9-year-old Cecilia Zhang from her Toronto home seven weeks ago, are extremely rare (35 last year), as are parental abductions, compared to the tens of thousands of runaway cases reported each year.

Runaways seldom ignite a massive police search and garner little media attention. Many are teenagers who left home voluntarily and whose cases often involve convoluted stories of abuse, neglect and teenage rebelliousness. Many are at serious risk on the streets, however, from drugs, alcohol and prostitution. And for Justin's parents, it still boils down to one crucial fact: a child is missing.

“It's been a long two years for us,” John Pollari, 38, said during yet another search of Toronto's streets. Janis McLeod, Justin's stepmother, carried the briefcase. Inside were pictures of Justin mostly, photocopied posters that, on this cold November day, they would post in shelters and drop-in centres around the city. It's obvious they've travelled this road before. There are also letters and drawings of Justin's that elicit a haunting feeling about this quiet, angry, boy.

The letter: “I really hate school and the government,” he wrote three months before he left, to his Grade 9 teacher. “At class I plan on trying until I get sick of it, then I'll give up and drop out when I'm 16.” The sketch: Himself with a Mohawk haircut that he proudly sculpted using wood glue, a dog collar that he wore and his skateboard. His parents used the drawing for a poster and affixed the words: “Justin we love you, call us! Let us know you're alive.”

Justin's case is unusual in that he'd never run away before and hasn't contacted anyone. Runaway teens are typically heard from at some point, if not by their family, then by friends. Three-quarters are chronic runaways, according to National Missing Children Services, an investigative agency for the country's police forces. (Of 66,500 cases of missing children last year, 86 per cent were solved within a week.)

“I have to admit, I'm a little obsessed with Justin's case,” said Jan Barr, case manager for Child Find Ontario. “My feeling is he's out there.” She often gets calls of a Justin sighting. His picture is plastered on transport trucks, billing envelopes, Web sites and public bulletin boards here and south of the border — ironic, since Justin hated having his picture taken. Barr is required to pass on any sighting to the Ontario Provincial Police officer assigned to Justin's case. But she doesn't always contact the family, knowing the toll it takes when another report proves false.

But this latest sighting got even Barr excited. On Nov. 13, a boy fitting Justin's description and four other kids stopped at the Metropolitan United Church on the corner of Church and Queen Sts., part of a vast Toronto network that feeds and houses hundreds of street kids. They were given food and clothing before apparently going to panhandle at the Dundas St. bus station.

“He called himself J,” said Judy, the outreach worker. He wore army pants, a Mohawk haircut and backpack. “He had layers of sweaters on and that's why I offered them coats. They looked very young.”

On a gut feeling, she searched the Internet for photos of missing children, spotted Justin's photo and called Child Find. It was the first call that Justin's parents had received from the agency since spring.

When Justin fled, the days and weeks that followed were filled with frantic searches for a boy legally too young to be out on this own. Believing he had gone to Toronto, his parents, grandparents and other relatives made seven-hour trips down from the Soo. They drove aimlessly along city streets, toured homeless shelters, lingered at punk rock concerts and skateboard hangouts, and talked to homeless kids.

“Being on his own, we thought ‘How on earth is he going to stay alive?’ ” McLeod said. Now after two years, feelings of panic, fear, guilt and depression have given way to cautious hope, an inner voice that tells them, yes, he must just be having too good a time to call; otherwise, why wouldn't he? “We still look at every teenage kid every day. When we're out driving, we turn the car around so we can look a kid in the face.”

One of the first stops on their recent trip to Toronto was Covenant House on Gerrard St., east of Yonge. It's the country's largest youth shelter that each year assists more than 5,000 kids, most of whom have fled or been forced from home. Justin wouldn't have been allowed to stay here until he turned 16, but one of the first things that young runaways do is buy fake I.D.

A burly man named Ron, with pigtails and a crocheted hat, pulls a binder of missing children from behind the oak front desk. “If he's been on the street for two years, he knows how to get around,” he said, pulling out Justin's picture. His parents hand over a new poster. He suggested they try some Out of the Cold programs that offer hot meals around the city.

Justin's parents used to believe in a civic duty to feed and house street kids. No more. They believe Justin was lured by the apparent glamour of living on Toronto streets. “It's difficult to even say, but we really aren't in favour now of all of the support that goes toward homelessness and shelters, because it's created a lifestyle,” McLeod said. “The intention is good, but on the flip side it has actually created a way for kids to live on the street.”

More than half who arrive at Covenant House are from outside the city, mainly Northern Ontario and the Maritimes. Few find life on the street or in shelters a pleasant experience, said program director Carol Howes. But more to the point: far fewer parents come looking for them. “Most kids don't have the option of going home,” she said.

Upstairs in the shelter Amanda, a slight girl with a pierced stud in her chin, wishes she had a place to call home. At 17, this is it. “My mom said the only reason she put out a missing report is because she had to,” she said. Amanda keeps in contact with her dad and brother in Trenton, however, and said she feels bad for Justin's parents wanting to know he's alive. “It sounds like he's not ready to confront his parents,” she offered. “I think too, maybe he's not ready to confront a life situation back home that may have nothing to do with his parents.”

Studies have found most youth run away because of intolerable situations at home: abuse, neglect, divorce, drugs and alcohol in the family, problems at school, peer pressure. Justin's parents say there was no abuse, major arguments or fights in their home. After he disappeared however, some people in town, including relatives, said they must have done something to make him run. They began receiving harassing e-mails and calls.

“Obviously if you have a teenager run away, they must be abused, right?” McLeod said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. Unable to tolerate the accusations, they packed up and moved to Barrie last year with Janis' two teenage boys. They kept the old phone number though, with a message relaying their new number and address, in case Justin calls.

Police forces are learning to take runaway reports more seriously, entering them into the central information system immediately instead of waiting 48 hours. It's one possible reason for the increase in cases, since children who return home after a day or two are now included in statistics. “We're saying no matter what the profile is of the child they're still open to victimization,” said Marlene Dalley, research officer for National Missing Children Services.

Nineteen-year-old Chris, for example, ran away for a day, then again for two days before finally leaving his Brampton home for good in February, 2001. He was 17. “My mom gave me my first piece of crack,” he said. He landed on people's couches, lived in a tent in Calgary, then on Toronto streets before arriving at Covenant House. “Everyone's got their snapping point, and then it's time to leave.”

There's no doubt that Justin had a troubled life growing up in the village of Desbarats, and later on St. Joseph Island, about a half hour's drive from Sault Ste. Marie. His parents split up when he was a baby. His mother gave up custody to his dad when he was 11. Janis became his stepmom when he was 12. He had stepsisters and stepbrothers in both homes and stayed with relatives when his father, a truck driver, couldn't take Justin on the road. He had learning problems that made school intolerable for him. And he lost his dog. The night that he left, there must have been a fight. He came home around 10 p.m. with a scrape on his upper lip and was extremely upset. At one point, he lunged at his dad.

“That's what we constantly wonder about? What in the world happened to him that night?” McLeod said. Justin said he was in a fight, then changed his story and said he fell.

Janis' two boys, Braden and Loren, have made several trips to Toronto to look for their stepbrother. “We were pretty good friends,” said 19-year-old Braden. “It's very depressing. We just want to know where he is.” By nightfall, Justin's parents had made eight or nine stops at shelters and drop-ins, including the church he was apparently sighted at, before calling off their latest search.

“It just feels like a shot in the dark again,” Justin's dad said. “All we can do is try. We can't give up. And we won't.”

By Rita Daly

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