Children in care are significantly more likely to be reported missing than those not in care, Over 1 in 10 are reported missing every year, compared to 1 in 200 of those not in care. They are also more likely to go missing repeatedly.
When children do go missing, independent Return Interviews are an important safeguard for them. Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing in England states that when a child is found they should be offered a Return Interview. A Return Interview is an in-depth conversation with a young person who has run away, which should be led by an independent, trained professional whom the young person trusts.
The key benefits of Return Interviews are to identify people at risk; understand the risks and issues faced whilst missing; reduce the risk of future episodes of missing or running away; and equip young people with the resources and knowledge of how to stay safe if they do run away again. They are a vital tool for safeguarding vulnerable children and young people.
At NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service), we conduct nearly 2,000 Return Interviews each year for over 700 children who go missing from care. Our Return Interviewers work with local councils to identify ways to prevent further missing incidents, and to address any risks such as child sexual exploitation or county lines. We only conduct Return Interviews where the child or young person has consented to be interviewed.
Are professionals and carers missing the point?
Around three quarters of our Return Interviews identify ‘breakdown in communication’ as a major ‘push’ factor in a child going missing. Carers and professionals must do all that they can to ensure communication with a child does not breakdown, and every effort should be made to ensure that they feel able to talk. This is the most important ‘point’ in our Missing the Point campaign. Listening to children and young people, taking them seriously, and responding to their concerns is one of the best ways to stop them from going missing.
All behaviour is communication, and if a child chooses to go missing then they are making a point about something.
Of the 11,530 care-experienced young people that went missing last year, each went missing an average of 6.1 times. Where an independent NYAS return interview was offered, this number reduced to 2.8 times. Where a NYAS Return Interview was offered, the likelihood of young people repeatedly going missing was therefore significantly reduced.
Listening now saves investigating later.
The average cost of a Return Interview by NYAS is £130, but the cost to the police of a medium risk medium term missing person investigation is £2,161 (over 16 times more). This means significant savings if a Return Interview successfully reduces the likelihood of a young person going missing again.
The latest Home Office estimates, produced in 2011, show that the annual cost to police of missing person investigations equates to 19,188 Police Constables working full time. That is one in seven (14%) full time police officers across the UK. A missing person investigation is likely to cost three times more than a robbery investigation and four times more than burglary.
Breaking down barriers to communication between young people and adults in their placement can have a significant impact on the likelihood of missing episodes.
We must treat children as children, and victims of exploitation as victims
Children and young people missing from care can find themselves at risk of harm, and this is most often associated with exploitation. Recent data from across the UK suggests that a quarter of all identified or suspected victims of trafficking were missing from care.
The link between running away and child sexual exploitation is well documented and over time responses to missing episodes have developed awareness and established best practice. One of the key points made by Louise Casey’s Reflections on child sexual exploitation is that “the victims are children however they present themselves”.
A recent serious case review found that children subject to criminal exploitation and violence continue to risk being identified as criminals instead of victims by social workers and the criminal justice system. In that case, despite going missing for a week and returning with “a number of high value possessions”, no Return Interview was offered to the boy. Months later, he was murdered in gang violence. His name was Jaden Moodie and he was 14 years old.
Room for improvement
Unfortunately, the Children’s Society recently concluded that Return Interview “provision for children who go missing remains patchy. Opportunities to intervene early and offer help before risks become more serious may be lost, making these vulnerable children even more vulnerable”.
Listening to the views of children who have gone missing from care is vital to the success of any effort to reduce missing episodes. Do not miss the point.
Home Office and ONS (2011) Police service strength England and Wales, 31 March 2011. Home Office and Office for National Statistics. Available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/police-service-strength-england-and-wales-31-march-2011 [Accessed 25 April 2019].
Shalev Greene, K. and Hayden, C. (2014) Repeat reports to the police of missing people: locations and characteristics. University of Portsmouth: Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, p.7. Available online: http://www2.port.ac.uk/media/contacts-and-departments/icjs/csmp/Repeat-reports-to-the-police-of-missing-people.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019].
ECPAT UK and Missing People (2018) Still in Harm’s Way: An update report on trafficked and unaccompanied children going missing from care in the UK. ECPAT UK and Missing People, p.5. Available online: https://www.ecpat.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=96016be0-cc60-48e0-ab9c-635b742f5b7f [Accessed 25 April 2019].
Casey, L. (2015) Reflections on child sexual exploitation. Department for Communities and Local Government, p.3. Available online: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/418394/Louise_Casey_report_into_CSE_template_format__4_.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019].
Turner, A. (2018) Social workers ‘did not respond’ to risks murdered teenager faced. Community Care. Available online: https://www.communitycare.co.uk/2018/10/23/serious-case-review-social-workers-did-not-respond-risks-murdered-teenager/ [Accessed 25 April 2019].
Chetwynd, H. and Pona, I. (2017) Making Connections: Understanding how local agencies can better keep missing children safe. The Children’s Society, p.25. Available online: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/making-connections-how-local-agencies-can-keep-missing-children-safe.pdf [Accessed 25 April 2019].