“Don’t make me feel guilty”: How best to support looked after children who go missing
With looked after children reported missing at disproportionately high levels, new research explores the perspective of looked after children themselves, exploring their views on what should happen and how they can be supported.
Research indicates that one in every ten children looked after children will go missing, compared to an estimated one in every 200 children generally, according to Department for Education statistics.
Children in care are also much more likely to be reported missing on multiple occasions: in 2020, over 12,000 children who were looked after went missing in over 81,000 missing incidents, and nearly 65% of missing looked after children were reported missing more than once in 2020.
Missing People, a charity supporting people who go missing and their loved ones, says going missing can be a warning sign of a range of serious harms including sexual and criminal exploitation; bullying; mental health issues; and unhappiness in the home.
Looked after children may also go missing because as a result of being moved away from their family or home in a distant placement, the charity says.
There is a delicate balance for professionals and carers between safeguarding missing children from the risks associated with going missing and over-involving the police in a child’s life by reporting them missing unnecessarily. Research from the Howard League for Penal Reform says the latter can cause significant harm and can damage the child’s relationships with the professionals around them.
All agencies who have a role in children’s care, including carers, residential staff, social workers, and the police should be working together in the best interests of every child – but it is important that the voices and views of care-experienced young people themselves are heard in developing this guidance, Missing People says.
Interviewing children in care who have themselves gone missing, the charity found that young people wanted carers and professionals involved in their life to avoid making assumptions about them and why they have gone missing, instead trying to understand their reasons and acknowledging their own unique situations.
They also said that the issues that cause children in care to go missing can be mitigated, and that going missing is not an inevitable outcome.
Young people also expressed concern at police being contacted automatically if they are not where they are supposed to be, arguing for a more person-centred, risk-based approach. They said the police should also not be contacted simply as a disciplinary measure, accepting however that it was vital they be contacted when a child is at risk of coming to harm. Young people also said that when n the police do have contact with a missing young person, they should act “supportively and respectfully”.
Interviewees said professionals should also try to understand the unique challenges facing looked after children, including the conflict in wanting to be treated like other children but also needing their often complicated circumstances to be taken into account.
Young people identified a number of ‘push factors’ causing them to go missing, including unhappiness with their placement, escaping unsafe home environments, and issues with the rules set by placements.
One young person said: “…You’re not allowed to stay out. You want to be spontaneous, it takes too long for placement to sort out permission to stay out, social workers don’t answer their phones or make decisions quick enough. Once you’re out you don’t bother answering your phone or going home cos you know you’ve been reported missing so you might as well stay out, the outcome will be the same if it’s that night or the morning, the police are gonna pick you up.”
They also identified a number of ‘pull factors’ including seeing family and friends – without the restrictions associated with being in care – as well as drug or alcohol abuse.
One young person said: “If you have a family that love you it’s different, but in care they don’t love you. That’s why we do drugs, it’s another way to escape.”
Regarding the issue of when to contact the police, the young people’s responses suggested that contacting the police is a moment of escalation and therefore it is important to use other options to contact the missing child or facilitate their return first, unless the circumstances suggest there is an immediate risk.
The young people felt that being in care made it more likely that the police would be contacted and at an earlier stage, which was a source of some frustration for them.
They also said that carers to know the young people in their care well so they can understand what may be happening for them and to make sensitive attempts to contact or find them before calling the police.
“Calling police is not giving young people a chance to cool off. Keep lines of communication open and do best to find them yourself and then call the police,” one said.
Young people highlighted the unique challenges associated with growing up in care. One said: “Remember being in care isn’t like being a normal teenager, so don’t expect us to be normal. Try and understand our reasons, sometimes you need to leave us alone, you need to listen to what we say when we aren’t happy and don’t blame us for not being able to cope. Don’t threaten my placement because I go missing.”
They also highlighted that restrictions for them should be reasonable, saying: “Don’t make rules they can’t keep too, curfews too early, rules to strict, can’t see friends, have them over etc. In semi [Semi independent living] we are supposed to look after ourselves, be independent, but we can’t make our own decisions about who comes and stays and how long we go out, how does that make sense?”
Missing People conducted interview consultations over 11 sessions involving 27 children. All of the children and young people who took part had been missing themselves in the past, with most having multiple missing episodes. The majority were living in residential care, but others were in foster care, in the care of a grandparent, or in a semi-independent living setting. All except three were female.
Read the full report:
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