‘We are essentially powerless to protect children who go missing from care’

David Jones explains the processes a children's home goes through when a child goes missing from care, and why it is often futile

Photo: Tuomas Marttila/REX

by David Jones

Bill was addicted to Black Mamba when his worried sister rang to tell us where he was. We went to the address and found him in a stupor. The people with him thought it was very amusing, telling us he was fine and then physically challenging us when we tried to get Bill to his feet. Our only option was to leave the house and phone the police. Thankfully they arrived only minutes later and escorted Bill to the patrol car.

A major dilemma for residential home workers is looking for young people when they go missing from care. This issue strikes at the very heart of safeguarding kids, but it is actually unworkable.

Children will often tell you they spent the evening in the city centre, asking strangers for cigarettes or to buy a packet for them. Others will have been hanging around in arcades – “just chilling”.

Box-ticking exercise

Following one or more child on foot or in a vehicle is actually a waste of time and even managers admit it is merely a box-ticking exercise.

So when staff ask “why bother?” this is not as counter-intuitive an attitude as it sounds. In very few cases are we able to keep young people in sight, and even when we manage to and ask them to return to the home with us, they always refuse.

This has certainly been my experience and that of my colleagues, and it leaves us feeling helpless and frustrated.

The problem becomes even more acute when staff put themselves at risk. I’ve had to follow kids at night into a nearby park which is well known as a meeting place for drug dealers and gangs. On one occasion I was surrounded by four guys who were very intimidating and even threatening.

When staff return to the home and report a young person as missing to the police, the box is ticked and that is that as far as we are concerned.

Less than sympathetic

We can go out again of course, as I have on numerous times, but the result is the same.

It has to be said that at times the police are less than sympathetic. I’ve often been asked why I didn’t keep the front and back doors of the home locked, and when I explain that we are not a secure unit, are legally unable to do so, and that the kids have keys that work until 9.00pm, an officer will make their frustration clear.

Depending on the risk assessment, the police will be informed immediately or within a certain time of the child having left the home. Noticing a child going off, staff will approach them, asking them how they are and gently enquire where they are going.

This can elicit no response, a polite refusal to give any details or a volley of verbal abuse. But walking alongside a young person in public simply isn’t practical as they will simply run off or accuse you of something, anything, which can sometimes invite the wrong sort of attention from a well-meaning but hostile passer-by. Should staff be on their own in such circumstances, whether due to colleagues being needed in the home or off sick, the risk to your personal safety is potentially even greater.

Kids are also familiar with every jitty and short-cut within the area of the home – and beyond – which again makes it impossible to keep them in sight. Some staff will spend up to an hour searching while others will give up earlier, but either way it’s a thankless task.

Essentially powerless

Certain staff are also understandably anxious and even scared when going to less salubrious areas, myself included. Wearing identification tags makes no difference to some people who will challenge your presence when you’ve driven up and down a street two or three times.

A colleague and I were once forced to stop the vehicle when three men walked into the road and told us, in no uncertain terms, to drive off.

Whatever the circumstances, we are essentially powerless to prevent these kids from putting themselves at risk when they leave the home.

At some later point kids always return to the home either of their own accord or in a patrol car. And while it’s a relief to see that they are safe and well, my colleagues and I know that our efforts to find them have again proved impossible and exhausting, and also put our own welfare on the line.

David Jones is a pseudonym, he works in a residential children’s home.

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6 Responses to ‘We are essentially powerless to protect children who go missing from care’

  1. Kevin Campbell June 8, 2016 at 11:04 pm #

    The premise of care homes as a service creates this suffering. Youth are leaving care home to use substances to mum the pain of their abandonment and the hopelessness inherent to their experiences in care. The two loneliest people I know of in the UK system is the writer of this article and the youth he describes. Their fate is linked and caused by the misplaced believes and practices that constructed “Care Homes”. It’s time for radical change.

  2. R Brown June 9, 2016 at 11:35 am #

    With over 26years experience from Residential and Fostering I agree with this article. The issues are the same for Foster Carers who face even greater risks which searching for young people as they are frequently on their own and are at risk of violence and allegations.

    It is difficult to balance the risk young people face vs normal behaviours and also the issues raised by the fact they are ‘looked after’ e.g. it is rare for a birth child to be reported to the police for coming in late, but it is a legal requirement for a looked after child.

    In my opinion, once the act of going missing has occurred, in most cases it’s too late to really be able to take meaningful action. However, it’s all about prevention and understanding why the young person has a need to go ‘missing’ and put in place a supportive care plan to address the core issues which leads them to putting themselves at risk. Even post Rotherham is this really understood and are there the budgets and resources to meet the need? I think we all know the answer.

  3. Steve Lord June 12, 2016 at 9:20 pm #

    Is it any surprise that we have these problems when children are placed in residential care as a last resort, at an age that is too late to have the impact we can have on young lives, in a system that condemns us for not doing enough whilst tying our hands with red tape and condemnatory inspection; where local authorities are more interested in back covering than addressing real child needs and spending as little as possible for as long as possible is the requirement………

    Well look what we have!

  4. maria June 13, 2016 at 11:38 am #

    as a social worker i would rather spend my time searching for my young people that have gone missing (as i sometimes know where they might be) rather than attending useless meetings & sitting at my desk/behind a computer all day/every day doing time consuming/lengthy/complicated reports, case recording, plans!

    • Ben June 15, 2016 at 10:09 pm #

      I hope you are not insinuating that care workers have it easier than you?!

  5. donna mansfield June 13, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

    maybe if these kids where listened too there wouldn’t be this problem my child kept running home but constantly returned to care now locked in a secure unit like a criminal