Runaway children at risk from new police guidance

17 December 2013

Vulnerable children who run away from home or care in England are more likely to ‘fall through the gaps’ because of new police definitions, The Children’s Society has said.

Earlier this year, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) introduced new definitions of ‘missing’ and ‘absent’ persons. In a change to previous guidance, children and adults defined as ‘absent’ do not require an immediate response from the police.

The Children’s Society has welcomed the new research – published by Portsmouth University, ACPO and the National Crime Agency – on how children defined as ‘absent’ are safeguarded, something it says was missing when the police introduced new definitions in April this year. 

At risk of harm

Children who run away from home are at serious risk of harm, including abuse or sexual exploitation. But the report published today reveals a worrying lack of robust risk assessments when children are reported missing, inconsistent training and oversight of ‘absent’ cases and a lack of joined-up work.

The charity says the report raises issues that the police need to urgently address to keep vulnerable children safe.

Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, said:

'The police have said these changes are about better targeting resources. But without proper training and oversight, these changes are in danger of becoming a cost-cutting exercise that puts children at risk of serious harm.

'Not trained to spot abuse'

'We know children who run away are more likely to be abused or exploited. But the report reveals that most police call handlers have 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.

'I think most parents or carers would be extremely concerned to know that the police might not even make a decision about whether their child is at risk of harm if they report them as missing.

'We’re pleased the police have listened to our concerns and published this research, but now they must set out how they are going to urgently address these failings and ensure that children who run away from home are kept safe.'

Missing children who the police judge to be at risk should always be treated as ‘missing’ rather than ‘absent’, but the report reveals that the police are failing to consistently or robustly carry out risk assessments.

Media enquiries

For more information, please call The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4423 or email. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

Notes to editors

  • The report from the University of Portsmouth, the Association of Chief Police Officer and Absent: An exploration of common police procedures for safeguarding practices in cases of missing children and the National Crime Agency can be found here.
  • Under ACPO guidance published earlier this year, ‘Absent’ is “a person not at a place where they are expected or required to be”. ‘Absent’ is to be used in cases where there are grounds to believe that the absence involves no apparent risk, or the level of risk is a tolerable one not meeting the threshold for a police led missing person investigation. 
  • The Children’s Society’s Still Running 3 report showed that one in four children who runs away from home experiences a harmful or dangerous situation.
  • The Children’s Society wants to create a society where children and young people are valued, respected and happy. We are committed to helping vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including children in care and young runaways. We give a voice to disabled children, help young refugees to rebuild their lives and provide relief for young carers. Through our campaigns and research, we seek to influence policy and perceptions so that young people have a better chance in life.