Councils across the country are flouting their legal duties by failing to keep accurate records of children missing from care, a Community Care investigation has revealed.
As a result, official statistics are likely to be inaccurate, according to police officers and experts who described Community Care‘s findings – based on responses to a Freedom of Information request sent to councils in England – as “shocking”.
Local authorities in England were asked for the number of children who went missing from their care over the past three years, including how quickly they were found.
The responses, from just under one-third (47) of councils, revealed 1,528 went missing in 2009; 2,036 in 2010 and 1,131 so far this year. Although the majority were found within a week, 72 were missing for longer than three months and 45 have never been found.
Yet the figures cannot reflect the true picture because more than half of those councils that responded supplied inadequate data. Some recorded missing episodes, not children, while others only held data for 2010-11, despite a statutory duty to record missing numbers, as of July 2009.
Only 20 provided the full range of information they were asked for, while 21 omitted, or did not hold, key elements. Six authorities were unable to provide any data.
“This pattern of patchy, piecemeal data collection is shocking,” said Andy McCullough, head of UK policy and affairs at young runaways charity Railway Children. “This will be reflected across the country and it’s just not good enough. This is data that safeguarding boards need so they know how and where to deploy resources.
“If these statistics aren’t being gathered it’s worrying. If there are no numbers there’s no issue and if there’s no issue then local and central government don’t have to look at their budgets.”
Susie Ramsay, policy adviser at The Children’s Society, agreed: “If one authority can do it why can’t they all? Councils cannot deny that when children go missing they are at risk – of sexual exploitation, criminality and substance abuse.”
The Children’s Society has also released figures showing 84,000 children go missing from home and care every year. McCullough claimed the issue had already slipped off the agenda following the loss of a number of dedicated missing children projects and the national indicators (see box).
One police officer admitted data collection is challenging. “It presents huge capacity issues at a time of less resources. With current pressures, the problem may just become worse.”
Local authorities have a statutory duty to record the number of looked-after children missing for over 24 hours. These figures should be included in reports to local safeguarding children boards and made available to Ofsted.
National indicator 71, the statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing, sets out how councils should record the data and respond to missing children.
Until recently, councils were assessed against NI 71 but now councils only have to report figures.
Government figures ‘baffle’ sector
Experts have questioned the credibility of government figures on children missing from care, warning they could be dramatically distorting the true scale. The official figures, released in response to a parliamentary question in March, revealed that 920 children went missing from care in 2010 – a figure senior police sources have said they find “baffling”. They told Community Care the real figure could be “closer to ten thousand”.
The Department for Education said its figures were based on the number of children missing for more than 24 hours and excluded multiple incidents of absconding by the same child. However, an investigation by Community Care, which itself highlighted flaws in council reporting, has already uncovered a much larger number of missing children.
Figures supplied to Community Care under the Freedom of Information Act by less than one-third of councils revealed 2,036 children went missing from care in 2010 – more than twice the number recorded by the government for every local authority in England.
However, directors of children’s services said they believed the government figures were “robust”.
Andy McCullough, head of UK policy and affairs at young runaways charity Railway Children, said. “We have to ask how much of a grip on this issue the DfE has. Why were their figures so low? They’ve said they’ll review the statutory guidance, but how can they if they don’t have the right numbers?”
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