Speech to the First International Conference for Missing Children and Adults

Portsmouth University 18.6.2013: I am delighted to have been asked to help open this First International Conference of Missing Children and Adults.

Looking at the list of delegates – the wide range of expertise you are bringing to this conference from across the world from South Korea to Poland – is impressive.

It is recognition that preventing harm coming to missing people and supporting families does cross national boundaries and that although the institutions and organisations vary in country to country there is much to learn from each other in how information is collected and shared and how risk is assessed.

“Missing” covers a wide variety of people, whether they are children running away from home or care for short or long periods; abducted, kidnapped and trafficked children and adults; elderly dementia sufferers or those with mental health issues.

Your agenda is wide ranging and comprehensive and covers many all of these different aspects of “missing”. There are representatives from 19 different countries and so the discussion today about working across borders should be very well informed.

And the workshops will also give you the chance to explore your ideas and experience with each other.

It is also good to see the wide range of UK agencies represented here.

Of course greater awareness of the link between children going missing for repeated short periods and the risk that they are being sexually exploited has, over recent months, achieved a high national profile in this country.

And could I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by CEOP and the many UK police forces that are doing excellent work in identifying perpetrators and bringing to justice the criminals who abuse our children.

There is excellent practice around. I recently spent a day with Staffordshire police who have initiated a joint training programme with police officers and children’s home staff, which aims at both working together to enable a better understanding of the level of risk children may be exposed to when they go missing and making appropriate interventions. This means that the assessment begins at a very early stage by informed children’s home staff.

But many challenges remain.

And a partnership of all organisations – statutory, voluntary, communities and also families – is important.

But it is also important that elected representatives to Parliament understand the issues. Because legislation can help or hinder those agencies trying to protect missing people. And politicians can also help to raise public awareness of issues.

I have been invited to speak here today as the Chair of the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults.

We are a group of MPs and peers, from all political parties, who work together to try to raise awareness of issues connected to children and adults who go missing. We work closely with charities, academics, statutory agencies and many others.

We have held two important parliamentary inquiries in recent times. The first was into how to help and support the families of missing people which recommended a Presumption of Death Act – which has now become law through a Private Members Bill.

Our second, very high profile Parliamentary Inquiry, was held in June last year into the dangers faced by children who go missing from care, including child sexual exploitation.

Many individuals and groups gave evidence.

Our inquiry heard that children in care are three times more likely to run away than children living at home and that a significant minority of young people coming into the care system are targeted for sexual exploitation because of their higher vulnerability.

We exposed a huge and worrying discrepancy in data collected on children missing from care. We also revealed a massive problem with almost half of all children in children’s homes being placed in homes miles away from their home town which leads to many running away and poor quality control and management in some children’s homes – 76 per cent of which are private or independently run.

Our main concern was that the significance of missing episodes was missed because data was not being properly understood and shared and of the barriers to sharing information between agencies.

We have for a long time had models in this country in which each agency like the police, Children’s Services, community safety, health, youth services or education, each decide separately if it is appropriate for them to become involved with a child that has gone missing.

A lot of time and resources can be taken up with that assessment process with children slipping through the net and coming to harm. There is the added difficulty that under this model, a piece of information that does not, in itself, indicate risk, will not reach the threshold for intervention. However, when put together with another piece of information, it could raise alarm bells. For example short periods of being missing together with attendance at a Sexual Health Clinic or presenting at Accident and Emergency drunk or with cuts. Or missing episodes combined with offending behaviour.

Although I think that awareness of the issues is bringing about changes in the way information is being shared at a local level and certainly leading to some innovative practice I think that there needs to be a complete re-focus on how at a local level agencies are safeguarding and protecting missing children. Procedures are not an end in themselves. It is practise which is often the important determinant.

We need to develop a new model where the question is not: “Is this the responsibility of my agency” but becomes “What needs to be done to protect this child?”

And this is why this conference is so important in bringing together your knowledge and understanding.

Going back to our report on children missing from care the Government responded positively to the 31 recommendations in our report and has already made the legislative change to enable OFSTED which inspects children’s homes to share information with police forces about the locations of homes.

A small but significant change which will bring better protection for children who go missing.

But I am sure that would not have happened without that powerful partnership between those working with missing children and elected representatives.

But, of course, families are also an important part of that coalition for change. The stories of those parents whose children have been abducted or gone missing or of those children who, whilst missing have been abused, change public opinion and create a support for legislative change.

Pressure from Parliament can also force companies and other organisations to take action.

Down the ages, there have always been people who have done harm to children but the new dimension is the power of the internet to allow widespread access to offensive, pornographic and illegal images and for online grooming and speedy communication between paedophiles.

It is difficult to talk about “missing” without talking about the role of the internet. The child whose image has been taken and put on a website could well be a missing child.

And of course there is a debate to be had about whether these big international companies, who make massive profits from the internet, are contributing enough to proactively monitoring and removing offensive and illegal material and closing down sites.

I believe companies such as Google and Facebook should do more. It should not just be left to the public purse to clean up the internet.

I was very pleased last week that Google announced that it was increasing its £20,000 contribution to the Internet Watch Foundation to £1 million over four years under public and political pressure. The IWF is a hotline to report criminal online content including child abuse images.

But it is still not enough. Yesterday the Government summonsed all the major companies to a summit to urge them do more to improve online safety.

Missing is a wide agenda and of course the greatest resource is you, your knowledge, your commitment and energy. I know you have come together to learn more from each other and take that knowledge away to develop more innovation.

At the end of the day success will be measured by fewer children and people going missing and coming to harm. That is rightly an international agenda.

So I wish you every success with your conference and hope you take home with you additional knowledge and information that will help you – and us – in your valuable work.

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