The All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults – Inquiry into the Safeguarding of ‘Absent’ Children
At least 10,000 children a year could be at ‘terrible risk’ because they receive no active police response when they go missing, according a parliamentary inquiry published today.
The inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, supported by The Children’s Society, has called for a controversial police recording system for missing children, introduced in 2013, to be abandoned because it does not safeguard children from harm.
Under the two-tier system, children are classed as either ‘missing’ or ‘absent’ – but crucially only a child classed as missing receives an active police response.
The inquiry heard that children who go missing but are classified by the police as absent slip under services’ radar until the risks, such as child sexual exploitation, become too serious.
The inquiry also heard of cases of children, who were classed as ‘absent’ but who had been groomed for sexual exploitation or criminal involvement such as drug running across county lines.
- A 15-year-old girl, reported by her family as missing, who was categorised ‘absent’. The family were told to stop wasting police time because she was ‘residing with an older boyfriend’. The girl was away from home for four weeks before she was reclassified as missing. It turned out that there were problems with child sexual exploitation, trafficking, criminal gang involvement and drugs.
- In another area of the country, there had been an increase in the number of missing boys who had been exploited by adults. These cases did not originally come to light because the boys had been recorded as merely ‘absent’ warranting no police response.
- Some children were found to have been recorded as ‘absent’ between 11 and 137 times despite many of them being at risk of child sexual exploitation and of being groomed by criminal gangs to run drugs.
- Risks are frequently not being picked up in risk assessments by police call handlers when a child is reported missing. Analysis could identify only 12 police forces that consistently asked about the risk of child sexual exploitation and only seven that consistently asked about any mental health problems of the missing child, other than an immediate risk of suicide.
- The longest a child was recorded ‘absent’ was a staggering 20 days and 16 hours.
- The inquiry found that children who are known to be particularly vulnerable to going missing and to being exploited, such as children in care far from their homes, are still routinely classed as ‘absent’.
- The MPs also heard evidence of police call handlers — who take the original distressed call from relatives, friends or carers — being put under pressure from superiors to say children are ‘absent’ not ‘missing’.
MPs on the APPG concluded that the separate ‘absent’ category should be scrapped and instead, all missing children should receive the response that is proportionate to the risks they face. The inquiry recommends that this response should always be informed by a joint assessment between the police and children’s services, in order to build up a picture of the child’s life and the risks they face when missing.
The latest figures show that 9,780 runaway children went ‘off the radar’ in a total of 21,399 incidents in 2014-15 because police classed them as ‘absent’ rather than ‘missing’.
The true figure is likely to be even higher as only 29 police forces, out of 37 who have implemented the system, could provide any data on absent children.
Ann Coffey MP, who chaired the inquiry, said:
“All the evidence shows that the new absent category is dangerous and should be scrapped. It is not fit for purpose.
“It was introduced to save police time but has turned out to be a blunt, crude assessment tool that leaves children who are regularly classed as absent in danger of sexual exploitation and of being groomed by criminal gangs. It is scary that exploited young people are falling off the radar and no one knows what is happening to them.
“From Rotherham to Rochdale we have seen a pattern of young people and their families not being taken seriously. Our inquiry heard of one mother whose child was classed as absent. She was left to cope alone and drove around all night long frantically looking for her daughter.
“It is also shocking that there are unacceptable inconsistencies between and within police forces in their approach to missing children. It is now time for all police forces to abandon this hit and miss system. Children deserve the same protection wherever they live.
“There needs to be a joint risk assessment by police and children’s services otherwise children can be left at terrible risk which could have been prevented.”
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:
“Children who go missing face serious risks of abuse, including child sexual exploitation. The absent category must be dropped. Not only is it preventing vulnerable children from getting the vital help they need, it leaves them in danger.
“Everything possible needs to be done to make sure any child who goes missing receives an active response and when they are found, that they are listened to.
“It is vital that all missing children have the chance to speak to an independent professional who can help them deal with the issues that made them run away in the first place to help stop them from going missing again. No child should feel that no one cares about them.”
The inquiry was also concerned that the initial risk assessment focussed on immediate risk despite the fact that for children at risk of being groomed for sexual or criminal exploitation or drug running, it is the ongoing and cumulative risk that is of most concern.
- As well as abandoning the absent category and replacing it with a new risk assessment response that assesses the level of risk to all missing children as either ‘low’, ‘medium’ or ‘high’, other key recommendations included:
- No child should be allowed to be classified as low risk without prior joint assessment of risk undertaken jointly by the police and children’s services and there should be a national information sharing protocol
- The police and children’s services should jointly commission return home interviews for every missing child.
- The police and the Home Office should introduce a National Database for Missing children that allows information to be shared across police lines to inform investigations and build up intelligence. This would include previously identified risks and information about where young people go missing from and to and with whom they go missing.
- The Department for Education should update the statutory guidance on missing children to include information on risks and responses to children who go missing as a result of grooming for criminal exploitation including drug running across county lines.
- Children who go missing from home and who do not have a social worker should all have a ‘nominated person’ — a sort of guardian — appointed to ensure that they are properly safeguarded. Almost 50 per cent of local authorities could not provide information about children absent from their own homes.
NB – You can find a link to the full inquiry report here – https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/appg-absent-inquiry-final-report-may-2016-embargoed_0.pdf