By Peter Grigg, The Children’s Society
Jack Brookes writes about working in a children’s home and asks how vulnerable young people who go missing can be kept safe (I can’t keep the children I work with safe, Oct 11).
The article powerfully demonstrates the lengths Jack, and others, will go to in trying to protect children facing multiple and complex situations. It is a difficult task.
Through our work at The Children’s Society we share these concerns and also the desire to want to improve the situation for young people running away. Children run away for all sorts of reasons. These can include family conflict, abuse and neglect at home, or children in care who have been moved miles away from their friends and family and simply want to see them again.
Others feel compelled to run away to adults manipulating and coercing them into criminal activity, or grooming them for sexual exploitation. It is rarely straightforward and it is a major task for workers to build trusting relationships, to listen to what is really going on, and to develop the skills to address the underlying causes of what has driven a young person to run away.
However, while there are many excellent examples of how professionals work to keep children safe, we also know that there are inconsistencies in the systems of support that must be improved. Addressing these alone doesn’t make the task easy, but they can help make sure that all missing children receive the help they need.
Here are five changes The Children’s Society believe could make a real difference:
- When a young person goes missing there must be a comprehensive risk assessment that includes information from social services as well as the police to ensure that the police take appropriate action without delay. Children who go missing are still experiencing poor or patchy responses from police and other professionals. Too many services are failing to properly assess the risks that young people face, or to share important local knowledge about places and people who pose risks to vulnerable children.
- The police must stop classifying children in the low-risk category of ‘absent’ when they go missing. Not only does it delay police responses to missing children, it prevents young people getting the vital help they need when they return and allows the risks in their lives to escalate further. Children who go missing are extremely vulnerable and yet in many cases their situations are not taken seriously, or vital chances to protect them are missed, as police fail to act early enough to stop grooming and exploitation.
- When a child comes back they must have an opportunity to talk to a professional they trust and jointly agree on what needs to happen to make things better. This is an opportunity currently denied to many. No child should feel that no one cares about them and help must be made available to address the issues that are making them run away. Everything possible needs to be done to make sure any child who goes missing receives an active response and that when they are found they are listened to.
- As a cross-party Parliamentary group of MPs has argued – the police and the Home Office should introduce a National Database for missing children that allows information to be shared across police lines to inform investigations and build up intelligence. This would include previously identified risks and information about where young people go missing from and to and with whom they go missing. The true number of children and teenagers who go missing is still unknown. From our research we know that only around 30% of children are actually reported as missing to the police. Even the true scale of children missing from care is not known – there are too many discrepancies in the numbers recorded by the police and social care. At a time of technological advances it is unacceptable that technology is not being used in the best way possible to help keep missing children safe.
- There needs to be an understanding that keeping missing children safe is everyone’s business. Anyone who comes into contact with children during their work needs to take responsibility for this. All frontline police staff, including transport police, should be able to identify and communicate with missing children to empower children seeking help. And children missing from family homes need as much help as children missing from care.
No-one should be in any doubt – it is no easy task working on the frontline to help keep children safe. From our own direct work with missing children we know that it takes time and the persistence of caring adults, to help young people get to a place where running away is not the only solution they see to the issues and emotions they face. ‘Don’t give up on us’ is something we hear again and again from the young people we work with.
That is why we believe that more can and must be done to make sure no child is allowed to slip through the gaps and that every child has the support of amazing dedicated people, like Jack, who is there offering support again and again.