Nearly 3,000 cases of children going missing were reported in Suffolk in the past year sparking fears runaways could become victims of criminal and sexual exploitation.

Now Detective Inspector Brett Harris, who has spent two years developing Suffolk Constabulary's response to missing persons cases, has spoken of the often complex nature of helping Suffolk's runaway children.

From the instant a friend or family member dials 999 to the moment the case is closed, he is responsible for reviewing and refining the entire process.

"Most of our missing people are repeat missing people," he said.

"Particularly children. We're all just trying to answer the same question - why?"

East Anglian Daily Times: Detective Inspector Brett Harris of Suffolk Constabulary.Detective Inspector Brett Harris of Suffolk Constabulary. (Image: Suffolk Constabulary)

From April 2022 to March 2023, 3,827 missing person reports were made in the county. 

This figure hit an all-time high during the pandemic, dropped the year after and has slowly been increasing every since.

Of this number, 2,775 reports (73%) were missing children - generated by only 719 individuals.

This means, on average, that each of these children is going missing three or four times.

DI Harris said the "majority" of these individuals are from care backgrounds, including foster care or children's homes.

Speaking of the risk posed to the county's children when they go missing, he added: "Exploitation knows no geographical boundaries.

"It's up to us to protect our children, to try to stop them from going missing and unwittingly exposing themselves to risk."

Suffolk Constabulary's missing persons cases start in the control room, with an emergency call operator making a judgment on the level of threat - children are automatically deemed high or medium risk.

It is here that a report starts to take shape, with basic information from friends and family such as name, age and what they were wearing when they were last seen.

"We look at their recent history to start to unravel the circumstances for their disappearance, " DI Harris said.

"This can be anything from mental health to relationship difficulties.

"Our staff are trained to ask those probing questions and identify those red flags."

Nearby officers are given a description of the missing person, told to monitor CCTV in the area and check in with regular acquaintances or favourite haunts.

Dependent on risk level they may delve deeper, checking on financials, telephone calls made from their phone and social media usage.

READ MORE: Suffolk mum speaks out on daughter's disappearance as the 'worst experience' of her life

"A lot of my job is to look at the big picture," added DI Harris.

"We start to build these patterns to see where they've gone missing from and where they might have ended up.

"With youths, there are many complicated push and pull factors that may drive them to specific people or places."

For children in care, issues are also raised surrounding overreporting, which DI Harris says can "destroy" relationships with children.

"We don't want to expose vulnerable children to police interference if it can be avoided," he said.

"If they have a 10pm curfew, what's changed at 10:01? It's trying to find that balance between those at risk and those pushing the boundaries."

With so many complicated factors at play for young people, police must make informed choices when appealing to the media for help in locating them.

READ MORE: Police and crime commissioner acknowledges county's 'significant issue'

Their online legacy is carefully considered and they must strike that fine balance between limiting the 'paper trail' of their disappearance and ensuring they can be found as quickly as possible.

This is often achieved by releasing a first name without a surname or localising the appeal to a small area.

"We only issue a press release where there is significant risk to personal safety or their life," he added.

With close to 4,000 reports made in Suffolk each year, DI Harris plays an important part in connecting the dots.

"Missing is a proxy indicator for other issues, like child sexual exploitation or criminal exploitation," he said.

"We instil an approach to these cases that would mirror any other investigation.

"No stone unturned."