Looked after children are disproportionately likely to be reported missing. Over 1 in 8 children in care go missing every year compared to 1 in 200 children who are not in care.

The National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) are an organisation that supports children in care and care-leavers across England and Wales. They empower children to have their voice heard; striving to provide a better future for children by giving them a space to express their feelings and concerns. The charity has repeatedly highlighted the issue of children going missing from care settings.

The charity has repeatedly highlighted the issue of children going missing from care settings.

“Ultimately, NYAS wants to make sure that authorities work with children to keep them safe from serious harm. We will continue to campaign for change – particularly with regard to the criminalisation of children who go missing from out of area placements, so that the issue is central to any future cross-departmental approach.”

Risk and Harm

Children in care who go missing or run away may be exposed to increased risk of harm or danger, including sexual exploitation, or grooming for criminal activity such as ‘county lines’. In 2017 across the UK, 24% of all identified or suspected victims of trafficking were missing from care.

In 2017 the Home Office listed factors that heighten young people’s vulnerability to county lines exploitation. A significant portion of children in care have experience of these factors:

  • Prior experience of neglect, physical and/or sexual abuse.
  • Lack a safe/stable home environment, now or in the past 
  • Social isolation or social difficulties.
  • Economic vulnerability.
  • Homelessness or insecure accommodation status.
  • Connections with people involved in gangs.
  • Mental health or substance misuse issues.
  • Exclusion from mainstream education, attending a Pupil Referral Unit.
  • An interrupted care history

The NYAS has reported that there is a tendency for professionals to blame the young person for ending up in exploitative situations. However, the NYAS want to highlight that:

“The victims are children however they present themselves”

Many children in care feel criminalised by the police while they are either missing or victims of exploitation. This is in no way useful to the child’s perception of authority, nor is it true.

Secure Accommodation

The number of children in care in England and Wales who have restrictions placed on their freedom has tripled in the last two years. More than a quarter of deprivation of liberty orders granted over the last five years were made primarily because of concerns about the child or young person going missing, without relating to mental capacity.

Children and young people are deprived of their liberty when placed in secure accommodation under section 25 of the Children Act (1989) [1].

A child cannot be placed in secure accommodation and deprived of their liberty unless —

(a) that—

  • They have a history of absconding and is likely to abscond from any other description of accommodation; and
  • They abscond,vlikely to suffer significant harm; or

(b) they are likely to injure themselves or other persons [1].

It should be noted that only one of the two criteria above need to be established for a child or young person to be deprived of their liberty. Theoretically, if a child or young person runs away two or more times in their lives, they could be kept in secure accommodation rather than be listened to.

Rights Matter

All NYAS services are formulated around the child-centred principles set out in the Children Act (1989) and in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) [3].

They place particular focus on the following articles of the UNCRC:

Article 12: Every child has the right to express their views, feelings and wishes in all matters affecting them, and to have their views considered and taken seriously. This right always applies, for example during immigration proceedings, housing decisions or the child’s day-to-day home life.

Article 24 (health and health services): Every child has the right to the best possible health. Governments must provide good quality health care, clean water, nutritious food, a clean environment and education on health and well-being so that children can stay healthy. Richer countries must help poorer countries achieve this.

Article 34 (sexual exploitation): Governments must protect children from all forms of sexual abuse and exploitation.

Article 37 (inhumane treatment and detention): Children should be arrested, detained, or imprisoned only as a last resort and for the shortest time possible. They must be treated with respect and care, and be able to keep in contact with their family. Children must not be put in prison with adults.

Article 39 (recovery from trauma and reintegration): Children who have experienced neglect, abuse, exploitation, torture or who are victims of war must receive special support to help them recover their health, dignity, self-respect, and social life [3].

The NYAS believe that the way many looked-after children are treated during and after episodes of going missing, infringe several of these rights.

Missing the Point

The NYAS campaign,‘Missing the Point’, calls on local councils to listen to and take seriously the wishes and feelings of children in their care, to reduce the risk of them going missing again.

They have found, through interviews with thousands of young people, that breakdowns in communication with care providers are pushing children to go missing.

Missing the Point recommendations:

  1. No child should be criminialised for being a victim of child criminal exploitation, such as county lines
  • Every child is entitled after a missing episode to an independent return interview, conducted by someone not employed by the local authority

Sending children far away after a missing episode increases the likelihood of them going missing again. Of the 11,530 care-experienced young people that went missing last year, each went missing an average of 6.1 times. Where an independent NYAS return interview was offered, this fell to 2.8 times.

Additionally, the average cost of a return interview by NYAS is £130, but the cost to the police of a medium risk medium-term missing person investigation is £2,161 (over 16 times more). This means significant savings if a return interview successfully reduces the likelihood of a young person going missing again.

The Importance of Return Interviews

The NYAS has emphasised that quality return interviews are integral to ensuring a child doesn’t go missing again.

A Return Interview can more than halve the chance of a young person going missing again. Communication is key. All too often young people in care are put in a state of confusion and instability because professionals or carers haven’t made room for communication.

Those conducting the interview should seek to explore:

  • What has gone wrong?
  • What led to the child going missing?
  • What happened to the child while they were missing?
  • What are the views of the child?
  • What support do they need now they have returned?

The language used in these interviews should not be alienating, too formal or too interrogative. Additionally, these interviews should be conducted by someone unknown to the child so that the child isn’t worried about pre-existing judgements on their case.

NYAS Recommendations

Currently, in England there is a statutory requirement for children to have a return interview after a missing episode, this is only suggested in Wales. This policy should be reassessed in Wales to make it mandatory.

Anybody that works with children in care should ask their local Police and Crime Commissioner what they are doing to make sure no child victim of exploitation is treated like a criminal.

The Welsh Government should make independent return interviews a statutory requirement, or the UK Government should strengthen its return interview guidance.

Overall, the NYAS maintains that quality and productive return interviews are key to ensuring that care-experienced young people do not go missing again. These children should not be criminalised, and local authorities and police should instead seek to understand the history and needs of the child going forward.

[1] National Youth Advocacy Service. 2021

[2] Children Act 1989

[3] United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child

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Children in care are more likely to be reported missing than other children. This leaves them vulnerable to criminal and sexual exploitation. This article explores what the National Youth Advocacy Service is doing to ensure looked after children don't go missing.

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