Ann Coffey MP has called for the controversial new police system of recording missing children to be abolished after a damning report from HMIC published today. (Wednesday)
Ms Coffey, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, welcomed the HMIC report on the police response to missing and absent children.
She said: “It is shocking that there are such unacceptable inconsistencies between and within police forces in their approach to missing children. Too many children are being left at risk. Children deserve the same protection wherever they live.”
The HMIC report criticised the new ‘absent’ and ‘missing’ categories introduced by the police in 2013, under which only people reported missing get an immediate police response. It found ‘serious inconsistencies in the way that forces use the ‘missing’ and ‘absent’ categories are leaving some children at risk of serious harm’.
The HMIC report recommended a review of the current approach to risk assessments of children who go missing with a particular focus on the categorisation of absent and missing children and on children who are repeatedly missing.
But Ms Coffey said that it was now time to go one step further and to scrap the system.
“HMIC found that children categorised as ‘absent’ received far less attention from the police, often not being looked for where circumstances may have escalated, or having any enquiries made as to why they left home.
“HMIC also found examples of missing children being incorrectly categorised as ‘absent’, meaning that little action was taken to find and safeguard those potentially vulnerable children. There could be various reasons why this was happening, however on some occasions it was suspected that it was being used as a shortcut to manage demand”.
Ms Coffey raised concerns about the new absent category in her report published in 2014 ‘Real Voices – Child Sexual Exploitation Greater Manchester’.
She said: “I fear that the new system is open to error and that children who are regularly classed as ‘absent’ instead of ‘missing’ could be sexually or criminally exploited on a regular basis.
“There would be no police response because they are not recorded as missing. This means exploited young people can fall off the radar.
“I have also been concerned that the new absent category appears to be a way of screening out or camouflaging missing from home episodes. It seems the new police categories have not strengthened safeguarding and are leaving too many children exposed to risk.”
Ms Coffey also welcomed the idea of a new national data base to be used by all police forces to record all children missing at any one time to ensure a more consistent approach.
She said: “It is completely unacceptable that inconsistencies between and within police forces are leaving many missing children at risk.”
She pointed out that the annual Peel Report on the Greater Manchester Police by HMIC in February had said that the force responds well to missing and absent.
“But GMP cannot safeguard children in isolation and make risk assessments in isolation. This why they need information from parents and children’s services, particularly in the case of looked after children placed in the area by other local authorities. This would enable them to make a proper assessment of a missing child’s risk of coming to harm. This is why a national data base would be helpful”
Ms Coffey also welcomed the HMIC recommendations for making sure local authorities conduct return interviews on missing children.
“The return interviews should be used as part of a wider intelligence system to identify risks to children in that area and trends locally,” she said.
She also welcomed HMIC proposals to ensure that all local authorities are complying with rules to help safeguard children who are sent to live in children’s homes miles away from their home areas. These children often runaway and go missing.
Ms Coffey prioritised talking to children in her Real voices report and she welcomed the HMIC children’s voices report which gave children and young peoples’ perspective on the police role in safeguarding.
”It is great to see children’s voices being included in the report. The important thing now is how the experience of these children will drive forward the cultural and operation changes needed in police forces so that children are able to feel and believe that the police are there for them.”