Posted: 25 May 2016

Missing children – are some more important than others?

Today an important report has been published about missing children.

It reveals how not all missing children receive the same response when they go missing and makes important recommendations to ensure that every missing child is kept safe.

Over the last six months the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults* has been conducting an inquiry looking at how the police and children’s social services respond to children who are categorised as ‘absent’.

What is an absent child?

You might think that when a parent or carer calls the police to report that their child is missing the response is the same in all cases. But it is not. In the majority of police forces the parent or carer is asked a series of questions so that the police can assess the risks the missing child faces.

If they believe that there is no apparent risk the child is categorised as ‘absent’ and not as ‘missing’.

For children categorised as missing the police take action to find them. They send an officer to search for them and gather additional information that may help them find the child.

If the child is categorised as ‘absent’ the police do not make an active response. The child’s parents or carers are asked to keep looking and to wait. The police review these cases at regular intervals and can upgrade the case to missing if new information comes to light which shows the child to be at risk or if a child is gone for so long that it becomes an urgent concern.

Why do children go missing?

When children go missing it is usually a sign that something is wrong in their lives. Often the reasons are to do with problems at home or at school that push the child to run away from home or care.

In other instances children go missing because they are being groomed by people who want to exploit them for sex or to coerce them into crime. Children often are not able to recognise that they are being groomed and may believe that the person who is grooming them is their friend or is in romantic relationship with them.

Is the ‘absent’ category a problem?

The Inquiry found examples of children being categorised as absent for prolonged periods of time. In the worst instance one child was absent for 20 days and 11 hours.

Some police forces were found to use the absent category more frequently than others. One police force categorised 87% of all its missing children as ‘absent’.

The inquiry also found that being categorised as ‘absent’ has consequences beyond whether or not the police start a missing person investigation to look for the missing child.

Missing children are entitled to a ‘return interview’ when they are found. This is an opportunity for the young person to talk to an independent person about what made them go missing and what happened whilst they were away. It is a crucial way of keeping children safe.

The inquiry found that absent children are not routinely offered ‘return interviews’.

Opportunities to get them the help they may need are being missed until things become really bad in their lives.

What needs to be done?

The APPG has concluded that the absent category needs to be scrapped and we agree.

It’s too risky to separate out missing children into different groups. Children who go missing are too vulnerable to be allowed to fall through the gaps. 

All children who have gone missing, regardless of how they have been categorised, must receive a return interview so that any threats to their safety can be identified and properly addressed.

We will be working with the APPG over the coming months to make sure that the recommendations within the report are taken seriously and that the change missing children need comes quickly.


*An All-Party Parliamentary Group or APPG is a group of members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, all from different political parties, who have a shared interest in a specialist subject. In this case missing children and adults.

The Children’s Society, in partnership with the charity Missing People, assist the members of the APPG by providing the help and support they need to examine the evidence, talk to decision makers and improve the situation for missing people and their families. You can find out more about the work of the APPG

By Richard Crellin - Policy team

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