Last year the APPG on young runaways and missing children and adults that I chair published a report into the safeguarding of 'absent' children, which was supported by The Children's Society. Through the inquiry we found evidence of children classified as 'absent' by the police when they go missing left at risk of harm because they were not getting timely support.
Our report made a number of important recommendations. Firstly, that the 'absent' category should be scrapped. Secondly, that unacceptable lack of reliable data and systems to share information about children who go missing should be addressed through the creation of the missing person's database. And, thirdly, that police and other agencies need to work together better to understand the risks that children face when they go missing to prevent further episodes of going missing and deal with issue before they escalate.
This week's report from the National Crime Agency (NCA) on the missing person's statistics confirms that the issues we identified in our inquiry are there and need to be addressed with urgency.
The NCA data shows an increase in the number of reports of missing children made to the police - from 112,853 in 2014-15 to 124,507 last year. It also shows an increase in the number of 'absent' records - from 21,339 in 2014-15 to 33,500 last year.
With the majority (over 90%) of missing and absent children's reports being made about teenagers aged 12 to 17 and staggering three-quarters of absent reports being about adolescent boys, it is obvious that more needs to be done to keep missing teenagers safe. That would include the police getting better at understanding and assessing the risks that missing children face. Including risks to the boys, who are often seen as less vulnerable, as the NCA data confirms.
The evidence received by our inquiry suggests, quite to the contrary, that teenagers, both boys and girls, are targeted for sexual and criminal exploitation and often are not able to recognise themselves that they are victims of crime or being groomed for exploitation until it is too late.
The changes announced recently are, therefore, both timely and encouraging. In January the College of Policing published their new guidance on responding to missing persons which discontinued the separate 'absent' category and outlined the gradation of responses ranging from 'no apparent risk' through to 'high risk' based on cumulative risk the missing child faces. And then in February the Government announced that the Missing persons database will go live from 2018.
While I am pleased that the recommendations made by our Inquiry are making its way into policy changes there are still some questions that will require answers. What safeguards do the police need to put in place to ensure that new 'no apparent risk' categorisation does not prevent children from getting timely support? How can the new database become a tool for both the police and children's services to share information and intelligence to ultimately keep more children safe when they go missing? What more can be done to ensure that children who go missing are getting timely help to deal with issues in their lives so that they do not have to run away repeatedly?
As a society we cannot be complacent until we find the right solutions to keep missing children safe and I will continue to press the government to ensure that the questions I have outlined above are answered.