A young person going missing is vulnerable. It is a very serious event that needs us all to pull together in an urgent protective response, everyone doing all they can, according to new guidance that underpins the responses of care agencies and Police responses.
Children in care go missing for different reasons. The new guidance came about as a response to the joint inquiry into children who go missing from care conducted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and the APPG for Looked after Children and Care Leavers.
The Children's Rights Director for England made clear in his evidence to the Inquiry: "we need to be careful not to treat running as just one phenomenon". His 2006 report 'Running Away: A Children's Views Report' highlighted the different reasons children and young people go missing, including being unhappy, not being able to participate in activities, feeling that they are in the wrong placement, or not feeling 'listened to'. Some young people also 'run for fun', or to family or friends - staff may know where they are and they come back. Other young people are running away to draw attention to something intolerable somewhere in their life, bullying or abuse.
Understanding this tells us that finding them is only the end of the 'event'. There's a deeper message to be appreciated too. The reason for a young person going missing doesn't always end when they are found.
Going missing can be a symptom of issues in need of attention. A message from the young person has not been picked up, communication has broken down. We need to understand what it is that this young person is telling us now and probably has been trying to tell us for some time. One size fits all isn't right. We should respond personally and professionally in the way that this young person needs. What we do has to be meaningful to them so they feel not only 'heard' or listened to, but understood. It isn't procedure, this has to be personal by and for everyone involved; a reaching out and a connection, a protection, 'safe' and 'guarding' in a personal way that will shape and enhance the professional actions we call 'safeguarding'. With only a little elaboration I've taken this from the new police missing persons' guidance.
It has a new definition of 'missing' - "anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another". And of being 'absent' - "not at a place where they are expected or required to be," that behaviour is not out of character and where immediate risk is assessed as low. 'Absent' can be escalated to become 'missing'.
Children's homes providers support the new definition and clarity of actions required by all parties. Child care practice has been clarified and the confusion of following numerous different Police protocols across the England has gone. There is one unifying task, reducing the number of repeat missing incidents, finding young people more quickly, sharing information, combining resources, and providing better care and support. It was a minority of homes whose practice gave concern, with this new guidance all children's homes everywhere will follow this best practice.
Sometimes going missing can be the reason why they come to live in a children's home. In November 2012 Ofsted reported, but didn't receive any media coverage or parliamentary or government agency scrutiny, a 19% increase in young people going missing from fostering from the previous year. More than half of the children reported missing went missing for less than 24 hours, 34% went missing between one and six days, 9% (287) went missing between one week and 28 days, 4% went missing for more than 28 days. As of 31 March 2012 there were a reported 1% still missing from care. The figures estimate that more than 3,000 foster children went missing in the year up to March 2012.
So the issue is wider than children's homes. The guidance must be widened and parliamentary and government agencies must take an even handed approach for all young people in all care placements.
Now the communication between the grown-ups has no obstacles young people can expect an end to the variability of response from carers and police. They can expect a uniformly supportive response. Everyone will all be acting according to the care plan of each child that identifies their needs, and especially what is necessary to keep this child safe with agreed actions that will happen in certain situations. All will know about each child, and about the needs of looked after children.
There is much to be done to make sure we all sing from the same hymn sheet though. Historic poor practice has led to confirmed views of other partners. Joint training is urgently needed; care agencies and police together appreciating looked after children have needs and behaviours that have a frequency and intensity not found in other young people.