Posted: 21 March 2013

More than words?: Do 'missing' and 'absent' make young runaways safer?

Yesterday the College of Policing published their long-awaited evaluation of the new police responses to missing persons. The document, Risk, bureaucracy and missing persons, looks at three areas that piloted new ways of classifying missing people. 

What they found is significant because next month these definitions will be applied by police forces across the country. The police will consider all cases of adults and children reported to them as either ‘missing’ or ‘absent’. 

‘Missing’ is for higher risk cases, such as when you don’t know where a person is, if their absence is out of character, or if they are thought to be at risk of harm.

‘Absent’ is for supposedly less serious cases of when a person is not where they are expected to be. Absences will be monitored and regularly reassessed until the absent person returns or the police decide to upgrade the case to ‘missing’. 

What the report finds – and misses

These new definitions are intended to make responses more proportionate to risk and help reduce costs through efficiency savings – and the report shows that the police can make savings by implementing these new definitions. 

Crucially though, the report doesn’t answer questions about whether children who run away will be adequately safeguarded under these new definitions. Nor does it say what safeguards need to be put in place to make sure they are. 

It also doesn’t look separately at the numbers of children in pilot areas who were classified as missing or absent, their profiles or from where they ran away. Unfortunately, this is consistent with the overall lack of data and therefore the lack of understanding of who these children are and why they run away. This lack of information means that it is harder to know how we keep them safe.

Missing children are more vulnerable than missing adults are

From our experience of working with young runaways we know that children are more vulnerable than adults are, and they’re at risk for different reasons. Young people are often not able to recognise they’re in a high-risk situation until it is too late. 

Many children run away from home or care because they experience abuse and neglect. This makes it more difficult for them to understand exploitative situations. Some children who are groomed may actually believe that they are in a loving and trusting relationship with the adult who is exploiting them.

Our experience tell us that repeat incidents of running away should always trigger a serious response from agencies and should never be considered as being ‘in character’ for that particular child. 

Assessing risk to ensure that children don’t slip through the net

With the new ‘absent’ and ‘missing’ definitions, it is vital that the police get their first risk assessment right. 

In the report, the case of a 14-year-old girl who was reported missing by her care home is described. The person at the police call centre classified her as ‘absent’. This was despite the knowledge that the girl had been involved with sex workers and possibly drugs. This child was missing for 72 hours before her case was upgraded to ‘missing’ after the intervention from a senior safeguarding manager in a partner agency. 

In this case there was no indication that the child came to harm during this long ‘absent’ episode. But it highlights once again that these new definitions can leave children in situations of risk without response from agencies tasked with protecting them from harm. 

That is why it is so important to make sure that the initial risk assessment is right, that all police staff making decisions on whether a child is ‘missing’ or ‘absent’ have adequate training and understand risks specific to children. 

And there must be checks and safeguards in place to rectify poor decisions quickly before the situation escalates. 

We need investment in a proactive safeguarding response

One of the report’s conclusions is that ‘proactive safeguarding work is more likely to reduce harm in [the long] term than simply deploying officers to attend all incidents’. 

We agree. In our practice, we see better outcomes for children in areas where agencies share a common understanding of risks for young runaways, systematically and jointly collect and analyse data about missing children, and offer children return interviews after their missing episodes. In these areas, vulnerable children get the support they so desperately need earlier, and are better able to recognise risky situations and deal with issues that make them run away. 

Unfortunately, we are seeing reductions to services – including those identified by the statutory guidance such as independent return interviews, that make up this proactive safeguarding response – in all parts of the country. 

The police are potentially able to save between £350K to £640K a day from rolling these new definitions out across the country(*). This money should be reinvested into proactive safeguarding responses – return interviews, training for front line professionals and data monitoring and direct work with children and families. Only then young runaways will be properly safeguarded, no matter how we define them.



* In a recent report, the National Policing Improvement Agency showed that in England and Wales the police recorded a total of 288,000 missing persons incidents in 2010-11, or the equivalent of around 800 a day. In the pilot areas around a third of incidents were recorded as ‘absences’. Using this number the estimated number of missing incidents a day would reduce by around 266. The Establishing the Cost of Missing Person Investigations report from the University of Portsmouth estimated the cost of each missing persons investigation at £1325-£2415. (Return to text.)

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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