As part of the investigation into the murder of “Adam”, the young
African boy whose torso was found in the River Thames, the police
asked London schools to check whether any black boys had
disappeared during a two-month period in 2001. Astoundingly, the
schools reported back that 300 boys aged between four and seven had
gone missing during this time, 299 of whom were African. But where
they went remains a mystery. Although most were thought to have
returned to Africa, the Metropolitan Police and its overseas
counterparts have traced the whereabouts of just two of the
Given that this figure of 300 missing children refers only to
African boys in schools in the London area – and over two months –
the actual number of children going missing across the country is
likely to be much higher. And this despite the procedures schools
have to follow when children fail to attend.
That so many children can disappear from schools is “a huge child
protection scandal”, according to Hilton Dawson, the patron of
welfare charity Africans Unite Against Child Abuse. He is
particularly critical of the government’s decision to exclude
children coming through immigration from the information-sharing
provisions of the Children Act 2004.
He says: “It is a scandal that children can go missing in this
country. This is where the issue of children’s policy comes up
against immigration policy and immigration policy always wins out
against children’s best interests.”
Kevin Crompton, chair of the Association of Directors of Education
and Children’s Services, says that while the issue is one that the
association’s London members in particular have highlighted, it is
down to every professional to try to prevent children slipping
through the net.
But agencies, including the police, social services and education,
do not know how many children – “missing” or otherwise – are within
the UK’s borders.
Hannah Miller, who sits on the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ children and families’ committee, says: “We are only
going to be fiddling at the boundaries of this issue until we know
exactly how many children are here. Until we get to grips with the
way visas are issued in other countries we are not going to get to
grips with who is here, then who is missing and if we should be
worried about it.”
Miller also sits on the Greater London Association of Directors’
child protection committee, which is creating a sub-group to look
at African rituals and the issue of missing children.
There are many reasons for the high number of African children
going missing from schools, not all of which are sinister.
Something as simple as the misspelling of an African child’s name
when they transfer between schools may lead to them disappearing
from the system. When a child joins a school they are given a
unique reference number which remains with them; if their name
changes so does their number.
Tim Benson is head of Nelson primary school in Newham, London, the
third largest primary school in the UK with 900 pupils and 90
staff. He is also the London representative on the National
Association of Head Teachers’ national council. He says: “To a
westernised secretary’s eyes it needs only one typing error or an
initial to be in the wrong place regarding a child’s name for them
to be lost in the system.”
The practice of private fostering, whereby a child is fostered
informally by a family member, can also be the reason why some
African children fall out of the system. Some African communities
consider children’s welfare to be the responsibility of a much
larger group than just their parents’. Where this results in
private fostering arrangements, confusion can ensue.
Benson says: “Even though people may not be directly related to the
child they say to the school that they are the auntie or cousin
because they think that’s what schools want to hear. When the child
comes to live with them they may also take on that adult’s last
But he emphasises that it is not just African children who go
missing. It is a problem that affects other migrant communities,
particularly those who start in one area of the UK and then move.
In Croydon, Greater London, another reason for these disappearances
has emerged. It is simply that the children are sent back to
boarding schools in their own countries. Croydon Council has set up
a group with local pastors to advise on the issues involved.
Miller, who is also Croydon’s social services director, says: “I
was amazed to learn that families are sending their children back
to African countries to be educated because they are not happy with
the education system here.”
Another issue to consider is whether there is an element of
complicity in the children’s disappearance. Certainly some people
will be wary of revealing information about the whereabouts of a
child to someone in authority, especially if they are asylum
seekers or if they distrust the authorities in their home country.
Benson says: “Some people fear authority as they have been victims
of atrocious brutality.”
Miller wants social care professionals to be “fully conversant on
why children go missing” and to ensure they follow the correct
procedures and protocols when a case arises by engaging the police
and immigration services. She says: “We have to accept that we are
dealing with something that we haven’t got all the answers to. We
have to start developing guidance to help front-line workers of all
disciplines recognise some of the issues involved.”
Improved international tracking of a child if they go abroad or
return to their home country would help to identify those who truly
are missing and those who are not.
For Dawson the solution lies at the heart of government. He calls
for the information-sharing and assessment procedures being piloted
in 11 trailblazer areas to be extended to all children entering the
UK. He says: “It appears that ‘every child matters’, bar the 300
boys who went missing from school. They don’t apply to this