The NSPCC is calling for urgent action to protect children from sexual exploitation in Sussex as new figures reveal that 212 children repeatedly went missing from care last year, according to figures from Sussex Police.
Nationally, the figure is nearly 3,000 children who repeatedly went missing from care last year, with police forces in England and Wales recorded over 28,000 such incidents with some children running away dozens of times. One vanished on 67 occasions.
When children frequently go missing it puts them at increased risk of harm, particularly from grooming gangs, who specifically target vulnerable youngsters for sexual abuse.
The NSPCC wants a more focused effort to establish why individual young people go missing and improve ways of preventing it happening.
Tom Rahilly, Head of the NSPCC’s Looked After Children programme, said: “The state needs to be a parent for these children. If any other child went missing their parents would move heaven and earth to find them and to understand why they did it. It should be no different for young people in care.
“Repeatedly going missing should be a big warning sign as this kind of behaviour can put them at serious risk of harm such as grooming or sexual exploitation. But we have to understand why they are doing it.
“Children go missing for many reasons – they’re being bullied, they’ve been put in a home miles from their family and they miss them and their friends, or they just don’t trust staff enough to tell them where they are. Many will have been abused before being placed in care and they need a lot of attention and protection. Going missing for just an hour or two can be long enough for them to come to harm.
“Of course care staff have a difficult job and many local authorities are working hard to deal with this problem, but children tell us they are looking for someone to understand why they go missing and to help set boundaries for them. Children want a little love and to be able to speak to someone who understands the difficulties they face. Otherwise, in the words of one young boy in care, they are ‘dead to the world’.”
The NSPCC is calling for:
Children’s experiences of going missing from care to be put at the heart of professionals’ responses. Too often children say that they are punished for going missing while their concerns and fears are not listened to or understood.
Professionals working in residential homes to act like parents. They must understand why a child went missing and how their needs can be met to keep them safe and prevent future absences. Support should be provided to ensure that practitioners are able to build trusting relationships with children in their care and that practitioners know when to involve the police and other services.
Repeatedly going missing from care to be seen by all professionals as a sign that children are at heightened risk of harm. Those caring for children can sometimes miss signs of abuse that could allow vulnerable children to be harmed. Repeatedly going missing from care, even if only for short periods of time, is a sign that a child is at risk. It should not be treated as low priority by carers and the police. Professionals must work together to develop a tailored response for each child.
Police, children’s services and residential care providers in a local area must be clear about what is expected of each other. The emphasis should be on preventing children going missing in the first place and returning them to safe care as quickly as possible when they do.
A Freedom of Information request from the NSPCC revealed that police received, on average, more than 75 reports a day involving nearly 7,900 youngsters, many of who were aged 13-17. At least 2,959 of the children went missing more than once with some absconding on 35 occasions. Some weren’t seen for more than a week and one force reported that six had still not been found.
However this is still believed to be a drastic under-estimate of the scale of the problem as it is thought less than half of all cases are reported to police and only 29 out of 43 of the forces contacted responded in full to the FOI. Latest figures from the Department for Education put the number of children who went missing from care at under 1,000 – a vast difference to that supplied by police.
An inquiry in 2010 by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children was told there was evidence that missing children are at risk of being groomed and sexually exploited but there was no clear picture of the size of the problem.
Children’s Rights Director, Dr Roger Morgan, told the inquiry: “If you ask me how many children run from care I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that and that is a major concern.”
Regional communications officer, NSPCC, Weston House, 42 Curtain Road, London EC2A 3NH