Ofsted’s chief inspector has criticised local authorities for failing to keep accurate records of missing children, describing the situation as “profoundly worrying”.
In a report, published today, Sir Michael Wilshaw recommended a single register to accurately track the number of children who go missing from home or care. It should be established urgently, he said, highlighting the risks missing children face, including sexual exploitation.
The report found huge discrepancies between councils’ records of missing children and those held by police. This shows that official data is unreliable and distorts the true national picture, as Community Care revealed in an investigation last year.
“The recent shocking cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Rotherham and other parts of the country highlight just how vulnerable children can be when they go missing,” Wilshaw said. “Our report today makes clear the urgent need for agencies to have access to a single, accurate and comprehensive register so they can properly track children who go missing and understand any trends or patterns.”
Government pilot on missing children data collection
He said he was pleased the government has “started to get a grip on the issue” after the children’s minister pledged to gather more robust data on missing children.
Edward Timpson said the government will pilot a new data collection in the next few months on all children who go missing from their placement, not just those missing for 24 hours, to enable better analysis and more effective practice to combat the problem. “This is long overdue,” Wilshaw said.
The report also urged councils to conduct an immediate review of the arrangements they have to support children at risk of going missing or running away, including the extent to which they are complying with statutory requirements.
Placement instability a feature in third of cases
Ofsted surveyed 10 local authorities to explore their safeguarding arrangements for children at risk of going missing or running away from home or care. For the looked-after children tracked, placement instability was found to be a feature in at least a third of the 30 cases.
Although inspectors saw some good partnership working, information-sharing and committed professionals, inconsistency and gaps in practice meant practitioners did not always fully understand the needs of these young people.
For example, inspectors found in-depth return interviews were rarely carried out within 72 hours of a child returning, even though authorities have a duty to do so. Not enough attention was given to learning from missing incidents, meaning senior managers had no overall understanding of the reasons children go missing, Ofsted found.
Councils fail to keep figures on children missing from care