Hundreds of children who are being looked after by the state are going missing. Louise Tickle asks whether the protocols introduced after the Fred West case are failing
Plenty of children pack a metaphorical bag and imagine running away from home. Some even do it, and their parents go through agony until they return. Most do. But when a child in the care system runs away, the risks are greater. So it’s particularly worrying that a recent survey of local authorities by the Care Leavers’ Association shows that hundreds of children in care go missing without a trace each year.
Councils have been under pressure to improve the urgency of their response when children in care abscond since it was revealed that three of Fred and Rosemary West’s victims were girls who were in, or had recently left, care. They had disappeared without attracting the kind of attention that would have ensued if a child living in a family home ran off. It later came to light that at least six or seven young girls from a Gloucestershire residential home visited the Wests at 25 Cromwell Street, Gloucester.
After the West case highlighted the issue, local authorities began introducing protocols to deal with it. These vary from area to area, and include carrying out risk assessments a few hours after a child has gone missing, which help decide whether to call in the police, informing line managers and going to the press. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, and are based on a local authority’s knowledge of a particular child and their patterns of behaviour.
But hundreds of children in care are still going missing, which raises the question are these protocols working? Break down the survey figures, and it turns out that, although asylum-seeking young people make up about 10% of children in care, they are the biggest group of runaways. Many of those will have entered the country as unaccompanied minors and have few, if any, local networks of relatives or friends that children’s services can approach to gain information as to their possible whereabouts.
This makes it even more crucial to prevent this group of children disappearing in the first place, says Judith Dennis, policy adviser for unaccompanied children at the Refugee Council.
An asylum-seeking young person taken into care needs to be placed in very safe accommodation appropriate to their age, ethnicity and psychological needs, particularly because they may have been trafficked into the country and could be snatched back by their trafficker.
“Because it’s very hard to make a child invisible, what a trafficker will often do is make them claim asylum,” Dennis says. “Of course those children will be referred to a local authority and enter the care system, but their trafficker will want to get them out of there. It’s no wonder that many go missing, and some have been found by police who have raided cannabis factories.”
Another problem is that some local authorities continue to put asylum-seeking children in unsafe accommodation. “I’ve even heard of a child placed in a hotel, a practice which we thought had stopped,” says Dennis. “They are then on their own without an appropriate, caring adult. Given the other people who may be around them, it’s very scary. Unsurprisingly they run away and say, ‘I’m not going back there’.”
Fear is a potent trigger for a child at risk of running away. “An Afghan child, for instance, might be placed in an all-white area where they feel unsafe, which results in them taking off to make contact with their own community,” says Dennis.
When asylum-seeking children in care approach 18 – the age at which their case will be decided on the basis that they are now adults – the fact they may be deported creates another powerful motivator for absconding.
Local authorities can sign up to the national register for unaccompanied children. Although it was never explicitly stated that this was a way for local authorities to record numbers – and therefore be paid by the Home Office for the care of these children – that is, in effect, what the register is, says Dennis.
If a child goes missing from one local authority, turns up in another and is taken into care, updating the register tracks their movement. But a database, Dennis points out, cannot of itself keep children safe. The difficulties inherent in tracing a missing asylum-seeking child make prevention the only effective strategy. Given the disproportionate numbers that go missing, it seems that councils are failing this extremely vulnerable group time and again.
Pam Hibbert, assistant director for policy at Barnardo’s says another factor that counts against children who have disappeared from care is that they don’t have parents fighting their corner: “I don’t want to be critical of local authorities, who usually have good processes in place – but as a parent you will push and push and push, and are likely to get something in your local paper or on television news.”
“Think like parents”
Amanda Lamb, head of children’s specialist services at Coventry Council, says her team tries to think like parents when a looked-after child goes missing.
“We would do what good parents would, contact the police, pass information on to other relevant authorities and possibly also the press,” she says. “If it’s a younger child, we would go into a very high alert and police would be notified within hours.”
A risk assessment is carried out for any child who goes missing from care, sometimes immediately, and action taken on the strength of it. Lamb is personally informed and oversees the actions taken in each individual case. Often, she points out, it’s an unauthorised absence where the young person is sleeping over at a friend’s house and reappears the next day – the kind of thing any teenager might do.
“What we try to do is make a judgement about whether it’s a youngster in a bit of a strop who will reappear, or something more serious,” says Lamb. “We will always have a ‘coming home’ meeting, where we have a conversation about the risks involved in what they’ve done.”
The work of Barnardo’s in local authorities, however, indicates a lack of awareness among care staff of the serious risks to looked-after children who go missing, says Hibbert.
“Children who go missing generally are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, but children missing from care are even more so, because they don’t necessarily have good experiences of normal adult relationships, so are more susceptible to grooming.
“When a child is brought back into care after running away, our experience is that workers don’t necessarily think about what they might have been exposed to, and therefore what services might be appropriate. If that’s not available, the child will be at greater risk of going missing again, as the reasons they went missing won’t have been addressed.”
However, as Will McMahon, chair of the Care Leavers’ Association, says, the best prevention is for a child to feel properly cared for in the first place.
“There’s a range of quality in terms of caring attitudes, and we have to get away from a situation where young people feel they’re being looked after because someone’s paid to do it,” he says. “To get to that point, it’s workforce issues, and we’re streets behind many European countries in terms of training and qualification levels.”
The average rate of pay for a residential care worker in Denmark, he says, is about £40,000 because the sector requires high levels of qualification in education and therapeutic methods.
“We need to completely review the standards, because we’re paying a lot for something that’s not good enough,” says McMahon. “It’s not difficult to work out. If you have a nurturing environment, you’re less likely to run away and, if you do, you’re more likely to come back.”
• Expert guidance on children in care