Should children’s homes take more responsibility for finding young people who go missing, rather than relying on police to respond? That is one of the key questions raised by a report into local responses to missing children and vulnerable adults.
The report, by the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, examined over 1,300 reported cases of missing people in one local police force’s area. It found 57% were from privately-run care homes, while one children’s home was responsible for 93 calls and an estimated cost to the police of over £220,000.
The top 10 locations that reported missing people, all children’s homes or mental health care homes, cost police up to £879,000.*
The report made a number of recommendations, including that children’s homes’ Ofsted ratings should suffer if there were too many unexplained missing incidents, or no clear strategy in place.
Duty of care
The report raised concerns about the tendency of children’s homes and care homes to involve the police in missing incidents, and warned they do not always share responsibility for missing people.
It stated: “The authors recognise that repeated incidents of going missing is often a reflection of the life situations of the people within these individual settings as they will often have personal difficulties, find it difficult being away from ‘home’ far from their family and friends etc.”
However, the study questioned why organisations that frequently report missing people do not routinely take responsibility for locating them, along with police.
A police source told Community Care: “I think there are a number of homes who report the child missing and they think that absolves them from responsibility.”
He added: “In most instances, if the residential care home themselves investigated before calling the police they would find them.”
The authors also noted the disparity, seen by police, between enquiries made by the parents of missing children and young people and residential child care workers.“We should expect the same degree of care from residential carers as a mum and dad”, said a police source.
Cross-boundary placements can put a huge physical distance between the social worker responsible for a child and the child themselves, often leading to a reduced involvement in a young person’s life. “This situation helps to create the circumstances in which children go missing from care, in order to be where they want to be,” the authors stated.
Citing a recently completed government consultation on improving the safeguarding of children in care, the report recommended that out-of-area placements should only be in the best interests of the child and should be signed off by a director of children’s services.
Ratings of care homes
The report recommended that Ofsted should routinely request a police summary of missing person reports from establishments. The police source added: “Ofsted has recognised that return interviews haven’t been done.” He also said care homes and councils must make more effort to ensure every child who goes missing is given a return interview to establish the causes of their behaviour.
As part of a tougher stance from Ofsted, the authors recommended that incidents of missing children should impact on the ratings of the homes and in extreme cases lead to sanctions.
When there are a high number of ‘unexplained’ cases of missing person reports over a protracted period of time, with no evidence or strategies in place to prevent it from happening further, the care home’s rating should suffer, the report recommended.
Restrictions on care workers
However, the authors recognised that care workers are limited in their responses to missing incidents, due to law and guidance that prevents them from physically intervening to prevent a young person from running away.
The report stated: “The law and guidance around the use of restraint in health and social care is complex, but in essence means that in the great majority of situations where people go missing, health and social care staff will be reluctant to intervene physically (in children’s residential care this includes not locking children in their room if they are in an open facility).”
But the authors argued that, in some situations, there are grounds for social care and health professionals to be able to prevent people from leaving institutional premises. Examples include children who repeatedly go missing and are believed to be at risk of sexual exploitation.
*These are the maximum estimates as proposed in the report, which used research by Shalev Greene and Pakes.