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Criminal Care? · 11 Aug 2021

Missing from care: listening to children

This guest post from Missing People discusses a consultation the charity carried out with children in care as part of their ongoing work to improve professionals’ responses to children going missing from care.

Last year over 12,000 children who were looked after went missing in over 81,000 missing incidents. They are some of those at highest risk of going missing: 1 in 10 looked after children are reported missing compared to 1 in 200 children nationally and nearly 65 per cent of all looked after children were reported missing more than once in 2020.

Going missing can be a warning sign of a range of serious harms including sexual and criminal exploitation; mental health issues; and unhappiness or abuse in the home. Looked after children may also go missing because they want to spend time with family or in their home area if they have been moved away to a placement, which in some cases may be unsafe.

Evidence suggests that looked after children can be at increased risk of many of the harms known to be linked with going missing. It is therefore important that professionals and carers responsible for a child’s care prioritise the response to missing and know how and when to report an incident to the police.

However, there are also risks to reporting a child to the police as missing inappropriately. Recent research from the Howard League has shown that over-involving the police in a child’s life, including by reporting them missing unnecessarily, can cause significant harm and can damage the child’s relationships with the professionals around them.

Guidance is currently being drafted to outline good practice for professionals when reporting a child missing from care. To inform this Missing People sought funding from the Timpson Foundation to carry out a small consultation project to hear from care-experienced children and young people themselves about what they think should happen.

The young people who took part in the consultation all had previous experience of going missing. They were asked questions about why looked after young people might go missing; what risks they might face; what should happen when they go; and what they want the professionals responsible for their care to know when making decisions about reporting children missing in the future.

Key findings from these conversations with young people included:

  • Young people want all professionals to stop making assumptions about them but instead to really get to know them and their unique circumstances: allowing that relationship and knowledge to inform decision-making rather than a more general process-driven approach.
  • Young people felt there is more that can be done to prevent looked after children going missing. Trusted relationships, more flexibility in rules and boundaries, and listening and acting upon their wishes could all have an impact on reducing missing episodes.
  • Young people do not think that the police should be called automatically or as a disciplinary measure. An unnecessary police response is seen as stigmatising and frustrating for looked after children, and many of them identified that it wouldn’t happen for their peers looked after by their families.
  • However, young people did acknowledge that it is vital for the police to be contacted when a child is at risk of harm. When this does happen they asked for more respect and support from the officers who attend.

Quotes from the young people themselves highlight some of these points better than we can:

“Talk to me, get to know me, don’t judge me, understand why I might go missing and help me manage those feelings and situations before it gets out of hand. Young people go missing for a reason, try to understand that. When we go don’t be angry or make us feel bad.”

“When you aren’t in a family home it’s not the same, you don’t wanna go back to a care home. Think about how to make them feel important, to feel at home [while in care]. When young people are settled they will want to come home.”

“Remember being in care isn’t like being a normal teenager, so don’t expect us to be normal. Try and understand our reasons, sometimes you need to leave us alone, you need to listen to what we say when we aren’t happy and don’t blame us for not being able to cope. Don’t threaten my placement because I go missing.”

“It depends on the kid as to when the police should be called. Every kid is different.”

“Don’t make me feel guilty or punish me, going missing might be how I cope when I can’t ask for help.”

There is much more we need to do as professionals to ensure that children missing from care are getting the right response, and much of it is a balancing act of respecting children’s rights, privacy and independence, whilst also ensuring that no child is at risk and unlooked for.

Recently there has been increasing discourse about the negatives in inappropriately or over reporting children as missing. The potential risks of criminalisation; the impact it has on children’s perceptions of the police; and most importantly: young people themselves’ views show that jumping to report is not in children’s best interests.

However, there are very real risks in under-reporting too. We know that failing to report children missing can lead to sexual and criminal exploitation going unnoticed; can be influenced by compassion fatigue or frustration with some of our most regularly missing children who are often highly vulnerable; and can ultimately lead to serious harm happening to a child while no one is even looking for them.

Recently we have heard of more examples of missing reports being refused by the police. In some cases this might be because they are not appropriate reports, but in others we have heard that real, immediate risks of harm are being pushed back.

We need to move to an approach ensuring the right professional is responding to children at risk of missing at the right time, based on their individual needs and circumstances.

It is vital that we find the right balance within this – ensuring that every incident is reported when a child is at risk, while also working much more closely with children to prevent them needing to be reported missing in the first place.

The full consultation report can be found here.

Josie Allan, Senior Policy and Partnerships Manager, Missing People

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