Thursday, April 6, 2000

Cyberspace reduces missing persons caseload

By DINA SUDLOW -- The Canadian Press

When Les Blanchard wanted to find the brother he hadn't seen for 40 years, he asked the Salvation Army's Family Tracing Services for help. Blanchard not only found his brother in New Zealand five years ago, he found a new job as a director of the service. (CP PHOTO: Dina Sudlow)
VANCOUVER (CP) -- When Les Blanchard wanted to find the brother he hadn't seen for 40 years, he asked the Salvation Army's Family Tracing Services for help.

 Blanchard not only found his brother in New Zealand five years ago, he found a new job as a director of the service.

 And he also found the fastest tool for finding long-lost relatives -- the Internet.

 "When I started the job, I thought, 'I'm going to use the computer to find people,' but I didn't know how I was going to do it," says the soft-spoken retired schoolteacher.

 "But I didn't know too much about the Internet and sort of went blindly into it."

He has since joined forces with students from the B.C. Institute of Technology to probe cyberspace for missing family members.  

 Before 1995, the service relied on mail, telephone and contacts to trace lost family members worldwide, a slow process with a 50-per-cent success rate.

Cyberspace sleuthing allowed Blanchard to improve his success rate to 65 per cent and reduce his caseload to 200 from 500 in five years.

QUICK FACTS
 The Internet is the Salvation Army's newest tool for finding lost relatives. The service is assisted by B.C. Institute of Technology students.

  • Background: Salvation Army tracing services started in 1890s, London, England.

  • Cross-Canada: Available at Salvation Army centres in major Canadian cities. Service is free; donations are appreciated.

  • Vancouver sleuth: Les Blanchard, director for B.C. mainland and Yukon.

  • On-line help: Internet for Investigations students at BCIT. Course has students across Canada.

  • Third partner: B.C. Telus donates prepaid calling cards for trace investigations.

  •  Between the BCIT students and Blanchard, the job has been developed and refined.

     "We have a Web page where some of the hardest cases are listed," says Blanchard. "I really can't think of any other way I'm going to find them."

     But there have been successes finding relatives as far away as Australia and as near as a five-minute bus ride. Often he has little to go on other than a name and an old address.

     The Internet is supplemented by networking contacts Blanchard has built up with Salvation Army missions and family services, churches, police and government agencies.

     That is usually how he finds those who are indigent or looking for work, the hardest ones to discover.

     With student imput, lost relatives have been traced through Web sites maintained by cemeteries and government vital statistics branches, e-mail addresses or merely entering the name in a search engine.

     His (volunteer BCIT)  investigators must sign confidentiality agreements.

     People using Blanchard's service and those he finds can request that phone numbers or addresses be withheld from each other until communication is established through an intermediary.

     Not everyone is thrilled when an unknown or forgotten relative comes out of the blue, says Blanchard.

     "That's the downside. It can be a shock and they wonder why a person wants contact. Is it money?

     "That's a real concern to some people. Others are concerned there is a health problem and they will be left responsible for that person.

     "Am I my brother's keeper? Not if I don't know where he is."

     His own experience helped him understand others' needs to find relatives.

     "I waited until retirement when I had time to put the pieces together," he says. "That's not unusual; many people wait until they have time to work on it, and then it's usually too late.

     "Fortunately it wasn't in my case."