3.8 Children and Families that go Missing
- Definitions(Jump to)
- Children Missing from Care, Home and Education(Jump to)
- Children Missing from Care(Jump to)
- When a Child has been found(Jump to)
- Children who repeatedly run away or go missing(Jump to)
- Children Missing from Home(Jump to)
- Children Missing from Education (CME)(Jump to)
- Further information(Jump to)
- Child: anyone who has not yet reached their 18th birthday
- Young runaway: a child who has run away from their home or care placement, or feels they have been forced or lured to leave
- Missing child: a child reported as missing to the police by their family or carers
- Looked after child: a child who is looked after by a local authority by reason of a care order, or being accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989
- Responsible local authority: the local authority that is responsible for a looked after child's care and care planning
- Host local authority: the local authority in which a looked after child is placed when placed out of the responsible local authority's area
- Care leaver: an eligible, relevant or former relevant child as defined by the Children Act 1989. Care leavers cover young people from aged 16-24
- Missing from care: a looked after child who is not at their placement or the place they are expected to be (e.g. school) and their whereabouts is not known
- Away from placement without authorisation: a looked after child whose whereabouts is known but who is not at their placement or place they are expected to be and the carer has concerns or the incident has been notified to the local authority or the police
Also see Hampshire Police Force definitions of missing and absent, and responses: The Hampshire Police Force.
Children Missing from Care, Home and Education
It is known that children who go missing are at risk of suffering significant harm, and there are specific risks around children running away and the risk of sexual exploitation.
The Hampshire Police Force, as the lead agency for investigating and finding missing children, will respond to children going missing based on on-going risk assessments in line with current guidance.
The police definition of 'missing' is: “Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established will be considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed."
This policy is in line with College of Policing Authorise Professional Practice.
A missing child incident would be prioritised as ‘high risk’ where:
- the risk posed is immediate and there are substantial grounds for believing that the child is in danger through their own vulnerability; or
- the child may have been the victim of a serious crime; or
- the risk posed is immediate and there are substantial grounds for believing that the public is in danger.
The high risk category requires the immediate deployment of police resources. Police guidance makes clear that a member of the senior management team or similar command level must be involved in the examination of initial enquiry lines and approval of appropriate staffing levels. Such cases should lead to the appointment of an Investigating Officer and possibly a Senior Investigating Officer and a Police Search Advisor. There should be a media strategy and / or close contact with outside agencies. Family support should be put in place. The UK Missing Persons Bureau should be notified of the case immediately. The National Crime Agency and local authority children's services should also be notified.
For more information, see the Hampshire Constabulary Missing Person Policy and Procedure.
Also see the Portsmouth Risk Assessment Toolkit.
The Children Act 1989 section 46 empowers the police to remove a child to suitable accommodation or prevent the removal of a child from a hospital or other place in which that child is being accommodated. When these powers are exercised, the child is considered to be in police protection. Police protection does not give the police parental responsibility and does not, for example, give the police the ability to consent on behalf of the child to a forensic medical examination. No child may be kept in police protection for more than 72 hours.
Should it be necessary to take the child into police protection, the child must be moved as soon as possible into local authority accommodation. The local authority should consider what type of accommodation is appropriate in each individual case. It is important that children are not placed in accommodation that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation or trafficking.
Local Authority responsibilities
Local authorities and other named statutory partners must to make arrangements to ensure that their functions are discharged with a view to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. This includes planning to prevent children from going missing and to do everything possible to ensure their safe return when they do go missing.
Through their inspections of local authority children’s services, Ofsted will include an assessment of measures with regard to missing children as part of their key judgement on the experiences and progress of children who need help and protection.
The Local Authority should name a senior children's service manager as responsible for monitoring policies and performance relating to children who go missing from home or care. The responsible manager should look beyond this guidance to understand the risks and issues facing children missing from home or care and to review best practice in dealing with the issue.
Collecting and sharing data on children who go missing
Early and effective sharing of information between professionals and local agencies is essential for the identification of patterns of behaviour. Relevant data may include times and duration of missing episodes, information from return interviews, absence data from schools, etc. This may be analysed to identify areas of concern for an individual child, or to identify ‘hotspots’ of activity in a local area. This will help authorities to identify risks in their area, such as exploitation, gangs or crime related activity that might not be apparent. It will also help identify trends, for example, whether children are going missing from a particular children’s home or other patterns across the local authority.
16 and 17 year olds
When a 16 or 17 year old goes missing or runs away from the home environment, they are just as vulnerable as younger children and are equally at risk, particularly of getting involved with gangs or sexual exploitation. A 16 or 17 year old who has run away may present as homeless. In this case, local authority children’s services must assess their needs as for any other child. Where this assessment indicates that the child is as child in need and requires accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, they will become looked after.
The accommodation provided must be suitable, risk assessed and meet the full range of a child’s needs. Sustainability of the placement must be considered. Children who have run away and are at risk of homelessness may be placed in supported accommodation. For example, the accommodation may include provision of specialist support for those who have been sexually exploited.
Local authorities should have regard to statutory guidance issued in April 20107 to children’s services authorities and local housing authorities about their duties under Part 3 of the Children Act 1989 and Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 to secure or provide accommodation for homeless 16 and 17 year olds.
Children Missing from Care
Looked after children are particularly vulnerable. Though the number of looked after children going missing is a small percentage of the overall number of children that go missing, it is disproportionately high compared with the children’s population as a whole.
Care leavers, especially 16 and 17 year olds may go missing from their home or accommodation and face the same risks as other missing children. Local authorities must ensure that care leavers live in “suitable accommodation” as defined in regulation 9(2) of the Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010, (made under section 23B(10) of the Children Act 1989). In particular, young people should feel safe in their accommodation and the areas where it is located. Local authorities should ensure that pathway plans set out where a young person may be vulnerable to exploitation, trafficking or going missing, and put in place support services to minimise this risk.
Out of Area Placements
When a child is placed out of their local authority area, the responsible authority must make sure that the child has access to the services they need. Notification of the placement must be made to the host authority and other specified services.
If children placed out of their local authority run away, the local Runaway and Missing from Home and Care protocol should be followed, in addition to complying with other processes that are specified in the policy of the responsible local authority. It is possible that the child will return to the area of the responsible authority so it is essential that liaison between the police and professionals in both authorities is well managed and co-ordinated. A notification process for missing and away from placement without authorisation episodes should be agreed between responsible and host local authorities.
When a looked after child goes missing
Whenever a child runs away from a placement, the foster carer or the manager on duty in their children’s home is responsible for ensuring that the following individuals and agencies are informed within the timescales set out in the local Runaway and Missing from Home and Care protocol:
- the local police;
- the authority responsible for the child’s placement – if they have not already been notified prior to the police being informed; and
- parents and any other person with parental responsibility, unless it is not reasonably practicable or to do so would be inconsistent with the child’s welfare.
When a looked after child is found
The responsible authority should ensure that plans are in place to respond promptly once the child is located. Care staff should inform the child’s social worker and the independent reviewing officer that the child has returned. If the child is located but professionals are unable to establish meaningful contact, then the responsible authority should contact the police and consider the appropriate action to take.
When the child has been located, the responsible local authority should review whether the child’s placement remains appropriate. The decision should be informed by discussions with the child and carers where appropriate. The outcomes and reasons for the decision should be recorded
An independent return interview should be offered when a missing looked after child is found. Where possible, the child should be given the opportunity to talk before they return to their placement. The person conducting the interview should usually be independent of the child’s placement and of the responsible local authority. An exception maybe where a child has a strong relationship with a carer or social worker and has expressed a preference to talk to them, rather than an independent person, about the reasons they went missing. The child should be offered the option of speaking to an independent representative or advocate. When a looked after child is placed in a host authority, the responsible authority should ensure the independent review interview takes place, working closely with the host authority.
Children’s home staff or foster carers should continue to offer warm and consistent care when a child returns, and running away should not be viewed as behaviour that needs to be punished. The need for safe and reliable care may be particularly significant for a child who faces pressure to run away from their placement as a result of circumstances beyond the control of their carers. In these circumstances, it will be even more important that the child’s care and placement plans are kept up-to-date and include a strategy to reduce the pressure on the child to run away.
When a Child has been found
Safe and well checks
Safe and well checks are carried out by the police as soon as possible after the child has returned. Their purpose is to check for any indications that the child has suffered harm, where and with whom they have been, and to give them an opportunity to disclose any offending by or against them.
Where a child goes missing frequently, it may not be practicable for the police to see them every time they return. In these cases a reasonable decision should be taken in agreement between the police and the child's parent or carer with regard to the frequency of such checks bearing in mind the established link between frequent missing episodes and serious harm, which could include gang involvement, forced marriage, maltreatment or abuse at home, bullying or sexual exploitation.
Independent Return Review
When a child is found, they must be offered an independent return interview. Independent return interviews provide an opportunity to uncover information that can help protect children from the risk of going missing again, from risks they may have been exposed to while missing or from risk factors in their home.
The interview should be carried out within 72 hours of the child returning to their home or care setting. This should be an in-depth interview and is normally best carried out by an independent person (ie, someone not involved in caring for the child) who is trained to carry out these interviews and is able to follow-up any actions that emerge. Children sometimes need to build up trust with a person before they will discuss in depth the reasons why they ran away.
The interview and actions that follow from it should:
- identify and deal with any harm the child has suffered – including harm that might not have already been disclosed as part of the ‘safe and well check’ – either before they ran away or whilst missing;
- understand and try to address the reasons why the child ran away;
- help the child feel safe and understand that they have options to prevent repeat instances of them running away;
- provide them with information on how to stay safe if they choose to run away again, including helpline number
The interview should be held in a neutral place where the child feels safe. The interview provides an opportunity hear from the child about why they went missing and to understand the risks and issues faced by the child while missing. This could include exploring issues where a child:
- has been reported missing on two or more occasions;
- is frequently away from placement (or their home) without authorisation;
- has been hurt or harmed while they have been missing;
- is at known or suspected risk of sexual exploitation or trafficking;
- is at known or suspected risk of involvement in criminal activity or drugs;
- has contact with people posing risk to children; and/or
- has been engaged (or is believed to have engaged) in criminal activities while missing.
The assessment of whether a child might run away again should be based on information about:
- their individual circumstances, including family circumstances;
- their motivation for running away;
- their potential destinations and associates;
- their recent pattern of absences;
- the circumstances in which the child was found or returned; and
- their individual characteristics and risk factors such as whether a child has learning difficulties, mental health issues, depression and other vulnerabilities.
Following the safe and well check and independent return interview, local authority children’s services, police and voluntary services should work together:
- to build up a comprehensive picture of why the child went missing;
- to understand what happened while they were missing;
- to understand who they were with when they were missing and where they were found; and
- what support they require upon returning to home or their care placement.
Children who repeatedly run away or go missing
Repeatedly going missing should not be viewed as a normal pattern of behaviour. For example, repeat episodes of a child going missing can indicate sexual exploitation. In addition to strategies and issues already highlighted, the following should also be considered when dealing with this specific group.
If a child has run away two or more times, local authorities should ensure a discussion is held, either with the child, their family or both, to offer further support and guidance. Actions following earlier incidents should be reviewed and alternative strategies considered. Access to and timeliness of independent return interviews should also be reviewed.
There may be local organisations in the area that can provide repeat runaways with an opportunity to talk about their reasons for running away, and can link runaways and their families with longer-term help if appropriate. They may also be able to provide support to children while they are away from home or care. Local authorities should work with organisations that provide these services in their area.
Children Missing from Home
Local authorities have safeguarding duties in relation to children missing from home and should work with the police to risk assess cases of children missing or absent from home and analyse data for patterns that indicate particular concerns and risks.
When analysing trends and patterns in relation to children in care who runaway particular attention should be paid to repeat ‘missing ‘and ‘absent’ episodes and unauthorised absences from care placements. Authorities need to be alert to the risk of sexual exploitation or involvement in drugs, gangs or criminal activity, trafficking and aware of local “hot spots” as well as concerns about any individuals to whom children runaway to be with.
The Local authority and the Safeguarding Partnership should also consider the 'hidden missing', who are children who have not been reported missing to the police, but have come to an agency's attention after accessing other services. There may also be trafficked children who have not previously come to the attention of children's services or the police. Research demonstrates that children from black and minority ethnic groups, and children that go missing from education are less likely to be reported as missing. Local authorities and the police should be proactive in places where they believe under reporting may be more likely because of the relationships some communities, or individuals, have with the statutory sector.
Child protection procedures must be initiated in collaboration with children's social care services whenever there are concerns that a child who is missing may be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. See Referrals Procedure.
The role of the police
The police will prioritise all incidents of missing children as medium or high risk. Where a child is recorded as being absent, the details will be recorded by the police, who will also agree review times and any on-going actions with person reporting. Where a child is absent from their placement but their whereabouts are known, the police will consider these as child protection cases and respond to them accordingly. Their case will remain the subject of constant review, in collaboration with local authority children’s services, particularly in the light of new information and changes in circumstances.
Children Missing from Education (CME)
Children missing education are children of compulsory school age who are not registered pupils at a school and are not receiving suitable education otherwise than at a school. Children missing education are at significant risk of underachieving, being victims of harm, exploitation or radicalisation, and becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training) later in life.
Effective information sharing between parents, schools and local authorities is critical to ensuring that all children of compulsory school age are safe and receiving suitable education. Local authorities should focus their resources effectively in intervening early in the lives of vulnerable children to help prevent poor outcomes.
Schools must enter pupils on the admission register at the beginning of the first day on which the school has agreed, or been notified, that the pupil will attend the school. If a pupil fails to attend on the agreed or notified date, the school should undertake reasonable enquiries to establish the child’s whereabouts and consider notifying the local authority at the earliest opportunity.
When the whereabouts of a child is unclear or unknown, it is reasonable to expect that the local authority and the school will complete and record actions such as making contact with the parent, relatives and neighbours; checking local databases; check with agencies known to be involved with the family; and checking with the local authority from which the child moved from. Further details of these checks is available.
Schools must notify the local authority when a pupil’s name is to be removed from the admission register at a non-standard transition point under any of the 15 grounds set out in the regulations (Regulation 8 of the Education (Pupil Registration) (England) Regulations 2006), as soon as the ground for removal is met and no later than the time at which the pupil’s name is removed from the register. This duty does not apply at standard transition points – where the pupil has completed the school’s final year – unless the local authority requests for such information to be provided.
All schools are required to notify the local authority within five days when a pupil’s name is added to the admission register at a non-standard transition point. Schools will need to provide the local authority with all the information held within the admission register about the pupil. This duty does not apply when a pupil’s name is entered in the admission register at a standard transition point – at the start of the first year of education normally provided by that school – unless the local authority requests for such information to be provided.
If there are concerns about the child's safety, a referral should be made to the police and children's social care on day one.
When a child changes school
The Education (Pupil Information) (England) Regulations 2000 (SI 2000/297) (as amended by SI 2001/1212 and SI 2002/1680) state that 'The head teacher of the pupil's old school shall send the information within fifteen school days of the pupil's ceasing to be registered at the school' and 'This regulation does not apply where it is not reasonably practicable for the head teacher of the old school to ascertain the pupil's new school or where the pupil was registered at his old school for less than four weeks'.
- Statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care
- Department for Education, Children who run away or go missing from home or care
- Department for Education, Children Missing Education
- HM Inspector of Constabulary, Missing Children: Who Cares? The police response to missing and absent children