Vulnerable children who run away from home or care could be in greater danger of child sexual exploitation because of new police rules, Ann Coffey MP has warned.
Ms Coffey, who is the chair of the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said that children are more likely to “fall through the gaps” because of new police definitions of “missing” and “absent” introduced earlier this year.
She was responding to new research published by Portsmouth University, ACPOand the National Crime Agency – on how children defined as ‘absent’ are safeguarded in six sample police force areas.
In a change to previous guidance, children and adults defined as “absent” do not now require an immediate response from the police.
In May this year Ms Coffey surveyed all Chief Constables in England about the new definitions and found that a majority had not yet adopted them. It showed that data collection was patchy even in some of the forces that had implemented the new definitions. It also revealed concerns amongst some police forces about the absent definition and its possible consequences for vulnerable children.
Now the Portsmouth research has revealed that some police forces do not risk assess “absent” cases and that the majority of call handlers, who take the initial call about a missing child, had not received training in child sexual exploitation and were not aware of the signs of it.
It also showed that the call handlers do not always consider the possibility of a person reported to them as having previously been a victim of abuse and/or child sexual exploitation.
Ms Coffey said: “Children who run away from home are at serious risk of harm, including abuse or sexual exploitation. I am concerned that these changes in police definitions do not by themselves provide an adequate risk assessment.
“This research reveals that most police call handlers surveyed had not been trained in spotting the signs of child sexual exploitation and in some police forces call handlers are not even expected to risk assess “absent” cases.”
“The danger is that children who are being sexually exploited may only be classed as “absent” because they go missing from home for short periods of time on a regular basis. The new rules could mean that sexual exploitation goes on for longer before it comes to light and that the children are not being safeguarded.It is therefore very important that local agencies work together to properly assess the risk to children who go absent or missing.
Last week Ms Coffey was asked by Tony Lloyd the Police and Crime Commissioner for Greater Manchester to hold an inquiry into the issue of child sexual exploitation. She will look into what progress has been made in implementing recommendations in Greater Manchester since the Rochdale case, when nine men were jailed for sexual exploitation of girls in the town, and what more needs to be done.