Multi-agency working can seem like a logistical nightmare but agencies in Lancashire were shocked into action by the number of children going missing from care in the county.
In 2002, 4,800 under-18s went missing – most of them from care. More than 300 children went missing at least three times a year, accounting for over half of all the missing person cases investigated by the police.
Of those cases, six children had gone missing a total of 300 times in a single year, resulting in 78 crimes and 60 arrests. And among those numbers were several cases of sexual exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse and firearm crimes.
Yet despite the scale of the problem, the different bodies involved weren’t talking to each other. “We didn’t have any idea about the volumes,” says inspector Neil Middleham of Lancashire Constabulary. “It was surprising, the extent that the same children were going missing repeatedly.”
Middleham only discovered the extent of the problem when he created a computer database to measure and analyse the data for the police in 2002. It proved to be a watershed moment for other agencies too: shortly afterwards, The Children’s Society set up a service in the area – the Young Runaways Project – to work with the most difficult cases. The project, the police and children’s services have now pooled their expertise and created new protocols to improve the handling of runaways’ cases.
Bob Gower, the county residential manager for children and families at Lancashire Council, says that before joint working improved, the police would be frustrated by the council contacting them with cases that didn’t need investigating. The protocols have given care homes greater scope to use their own discretion as to when they contact the police.
“Rather than having a blanket approach that after two hours a missing child must be reported and certain resources used, we’ve brought in managed risk assessment so that if we know something about the background of that child, we don’t necessarily report them missing.
“Now all agencies share information and aren’t parochial about it. By working much more closely together then people don’t fall back into their agency roles,” explains Gower.
The protocols formalise several different existing roles. Detailed information is now taken down by homes on a child when they first arrive, to provide clues if they go missing, and interviews are held on their return to try and deal with the problem.
If a child goes missing three times a joint agency intervention takes place and if they go missing several times more the agencies’ more senior professionals are brought in.
The three bodies now clearly work more closely together. People are well-versed in each others’ areas and their different responsibilities, but most importantly all prioritise the needs of the young people.
Crucially, if existing structures aren’t working, then the cases can be quickly moved up the chain to higher authorities. Stella Stansfield is a development worker with the Young Runaways Project, and she cites a girl who was running away several times to show how it can help.
“In meetings, we found that people weren’t sharing relevant information and some agencies weren’t doing what they were supposed to. The protocols say that if a child continues to go missing then we can bring higher people into a strategy meeting. [Due to this] we were able to demand the presence of a manager.
“Eventually, it was found that she wasn’t placed in a good area for her, so she was moved closer to her family.”
Cut in numbers
The protocols and the project have led to a 25% cut in the number of repeat missing cases. The number of serious cases, such as the child who went missing 78 times in a single year, has also been cut in half.
Now the National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care is disseminating a document by Gower and Middleham detailing the successful protocols. The strength of Lancashire’s work has come from the dedication of several different agencies, as well as extra money being put into the problem. But Gower says that even areas that don’t have a Young Runaways Project can tackle the issue by creating procedures that work.
“The most important part of protocols is to have them. If people don’t have them they need to sit down with others from the right levels and plan some. If you’ve got them and they’re out of date, then review and revise them.”
Children Missing From Care good practice document
Stepping Up, The Children’s Society’s review of services for young runaways
This article appeared in the 27 March issue under the headline “Advantageous liaisons”