‘We cannot afford to allow the role of police in safeguarding children to weaken’

Police monitoring of missing children must improve, says Andy McCullough, head of UK policy and public affairs at Railway Children

In April last year, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) rolled out new definitions of ‘missing’ and ‘absent’ persons, with the aim of more effectively deploying police resources.

As a result, children are now defined as ‘absent’, no longer requiring an immediate response.

Since then, Railway Children and others have warned such changes risk further weakening a far from perfect system, already compromised by inconsistent training, poor information sharing and a lack of clarity on how to accurately assess risk on a case-by-case basis.

We cannot afford to allow the role of police in safeguarding children to weaken. Every week, councils across the country line up to announce their latest cost-cutting measures that are decimating preventative support services.

Charities are also under huge pressure. Last week, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau announced the number of young homeless people asking for help had increased by 57% since 2007-8. This week, Barnardo’s reported a 54% increase in the number of sexually exploited children.

As every other lifeline for children at risk is pulled away or stretched to breaking point, it becomes ever more important for those services still standing, including the police, to maintain an effective response.

But are the police investing the right amount of time during this climate of increasing need and taking the necessary action to protect all children as soon as they run away?

According to new research by the Portsmouth University-based Centre for Study of Missing Persons, the answer is ‘not enough’. They have just published research looking at the risk assessment process at the early stage of a missing person investigation.

Police sergeants are responsible for overseeing the initial stages of missing person investigations, but in the force examined, 51% said they hadn’t read ACPO’s guidelines on assessing risk. And 49% had also not read the force’s own guidance documents.

Runaway projects we support, who work closely with their local police forces, are naturally concerned by this report. Running away is a key indicator of child sexual exploitation (CSE), yet we know many police supervisors have found their CSE training insufficient and fail to consider whether a child is a victim of abuse as part of their risk assessment.

The study also highlights that while officers are asked to decide if a missing person case presents a high, medium or low risk – to the person, and to society at large – the decision making process that generates these risk ratings is often regarded as subjective and inconsistent.

It is important to note that the study was undertaken between July and August 2013, and so does not take into account the new classification of ‘absent’, which the sample force had yet to implement. Therefore, this study refers to ‘missing’ cases only. Also the report conclusions are not intended to be generalised across all police forces in the UK.

At the same time, it is reasonable to believe that some findings may resonate nationally and it is unarguably of paramount importance that all children receive the same high levels of protection, irrespective of the policing districts in which they live.

Railway Children supports the invaluable role of police in safeguarding children, but this report puts them under the spotlight. Each force across the country needs to act immediately to show a clear commitment to enhancing its response and we will continue to work closely with them in addressing the weaknesses identified in the report.

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