Over 13,000 incidents of fostered children going missing were reported between April 2013 and March 2014, a 36% rise on the previous year, Ofsted has revealed.
According to data published by the watchdog this week, a total of 4,245 fostered children and young people were reported to have gone missing, 900 more than the previous year. In over half of the incidents, children were missing for less than a day.
Contact with family or friends was the most common reason children went missing from foster care, while children at risk of sexual exploitation accounted for over 500 of the incidences of children going missing.
Independent fostering agencies (IFAs), which account for a third of children in foster placements in England, reported more than half of the total missing incidents, and saw the numbers of children going missing from foster care rise 48%. This compares with a 28% jump in children missing from local authority foster placements.
A spokeswoman for the Fostering Network said this is impacted by, “how local authorities often commission their services to find foster carers for older children and adolescents with highly complex needs”. This could affect the number of children who go missing from care in this sector, she said.
Paul Adams, a foster care development consultant for the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, said the data overall is “very blunt”.
“Obviously children go missing for some reason that often relates to some level of difficulty – although the data shows that a lot of them were having contact with family and friends. It’s difficult to read behind that in any detail really,” he said.
“The question would be: are they just being teenagers and wanting to go out with their friends, or is it that the contact plans they have with their family and other important people aren’t working for them?” he said.
“A large number of the children reported missing are returned in 24 hours, and potentially that will be a teenager who has gone out and not come back at the agreed time, or won’t answer their phone,” he added.
Plenty of teenagers in birth families don’t come back when they should and aren’t necessarily reported missing in the way that fostered children are, he continued.
However, he insisted all circumstances of children going missing need to be taken very seriously by children’s social workers, local authorities and fostering providers.
Advice and support for foster carers must be available at night and the weekends when these incidents are likely to take place, said the Fostering Network spokeswoman.
“There is a huge role here for social workers and other professionals too, supporting the child and helping them understand the risks they may be taking,” she said.
While councils reported a 14% fall in incidents of physical restraint, IFAs reported an 18% rise in the use of physical restraint. In total, IFAs account for three quarters of the 1,230 incidents of physical restraint reported, Ofsted found.
But Adams warned: “If you wanted to make a more valid comparison it really would have to take into account the age of the children and their needs…Even age wouldn’t tell you the full picture.
“Because if you’re looking at teenagers, for example, maybe some teenagers in local authorities came into care at a much younger age and are more stable in their foster placement compared to other children who have come in at a later stage, are more challenging or have been placed with an independent sector provider because of the challenges they present.”