Posted: 15 February 2013

Scrapping the ‘absent’ category: a step towards a safer response for missing children

Every year around 100,000 children run away from home or care. As one young person we have supported explained: 'You leave the house when you feel helpless, I think that’s why most people run away, that feeling of helplessness. People think runaways are just being immature and childish, but it is not that, there is something deep going on there.'

For many young people we work with running away is a cry for help, a signal that there are problems in their lives they find difficult to cope with.

Good practice is patchy

This cry for help is too often not answered by professionals – that was confirmed by the findings in Ofsted’s thematic report on missing children, published last week. 

The report highlighted how inconsistency and gaps in practice and a lack of coordinated strategic responses to missing children in the local areas inspected by Ofsted meant that children were not kept safe. Ofsted’s report echoes findings in our Make Runaways Safe: The local picture report, in saying that good practice exists but it is very patchy.

These findings are not unexpected, but they are worrying and disheartening. They show that protecting missing children has not become the priority it should have been in response to the recent high-profile police investigations into sexual exploitation around the country and influential reports from a parliamentary inquiry and the children's commissioner that expose the link between going missing and child sexual exploitation.

Data collection on missing children has to improve

Ofsted’s report highlights the lack of reliable data on missing children. This problem was also identified by the APPG parliamentary inquiry's report on children missing from care, which we supported last summer.

If this data existed, it would enable local authorities to better understand the extent of the problem in their area and plan services accordingly.

Listening to young people’s voices

Developing an adequate support system for young runaways isn't just about the numbers. Listening to and taking account of the views of children is recognised in the report as an important factor in all successful cases.

We know this from our direct work with children and young people who run away from home or care. Experiences of abuse and neglect combined with loneliness and having no one to turn to make children run away.

Their vulnerability is exploited by predatory individuals in the absence of appropriate response from professionals and services. Only by giving children opportunities to talk about their experiences, empowering them and supporting them to seek solutions we can protect them from abuse and neglect.

Young people involved in our work told us:

  • 'I felt so lonely, I had no one to talk to, and that’s how I ended up with bad people, and bad things happened to me.'
  • 'It is easy to say "don’t do it" - but you don’t know you are doing it! So you can’t always realise what’s going on but you need to know that there is always someone there to support you.' 

Taking action to support vulnerable young runaways

Last week we welcomed the children's minister's announcement that the government intends to reform data collection on missing children. It will take a while for changes to shape and become a reality.

In the meantime runaway children need appropriate support. Ofsted recommends that local authorities undertake self-evaluation of the effectiveness of arrangements they have to support young runaway.

We urge local authorities to adopt this recommendation and, if they haven’t already, to sign our Runaways Charter – which was co-written by young people – as a first step to improving support for this vulnerable group of children.

Use our map today to access see if your local authority has signed our Make Runaways Safe charter. If they have not signed it, please ask them to do so.

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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