Soaring numbers of children going missing in care – with five reports a day and youngest child aged four
- Credit: Archant
Vulnerable children who repeatedly go missing from care in Suffolk and Essex are at a serious risk of sexual exploitation and bullying.
That is the stark warning from campaigners as “disturbing” new figures reveal five missing reports are logged by children’s services in both counties every single day.
Council chiefs in Suffolk received 2,757 reports of looked-after children going missing from 2015 to 2017 – relating to 357 individuals – according to statistics released to this newspaper.
Over the two-year period, the number of reports more than doubled – from 516 in 2015/16 to 1,219 from March to December 2017.
In Essex, there were 910 reports of missing children in the same period, with a child aged four reported missing in 2016 and another aged eight the following year.
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Altogether there were 3,667 reports logged across both counties – the equivalent of five a day.
NSPCC campaigners warned: “It is concerning when any child goes missing from care and these statistics suggest that some young people are repeatedly missing which is very disturbing.
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“This behaviour may put children at serious risk of grooming and sexual exploitation by offenders who are known to target vulnerable young people.
“We know from calls to our Childline service that children go missing for many reasons including bullying, abuse or being unhappy at home or in their care situation.”
The average age of children reported missing across both counties was 16, and most were not found for around eight or nine hours.
Education bosses in Suffolk said children’s services in the county are currently ranked ‘good’ by watchdog Ofsted, with arrangements for responding to missing children noted as being “effective in keeping them safe from harm”.
Gordon Jones, who is the cabinet member for this area, said: “We are incredibly rigorous in our reporting of any child missing from care.
“We have a range of suitable responses in place, based on risk and need.
“These act as a trigger point for us when the child in question is not where they are expected to be.
“When a child is reported missing, the police and social care team are made aware and we work together to quickly establish a course of action to locate and return the child to care.
“We use local knowledge and insight to build a profile for children who are particularity vulnerable to help us understand their motives, should they go missing repeatedly.”
Time is taken to speak to children to better understand how they can be supported, reducing the risk of it happening again, bosses added. Representatives for Essex County Council said the authority takes its responsibilities towards children in care very seriously.
They added: “If a child does go missing, on their return our social workers will interview them, and an independent return interview and independent advocacy are also offered. This enables children to talk about their concerns and the reasons for running away, so that appropriate action can be taken.
“We work closely with Essex Police and other agencies to make sure there is a co-ordinated, multi-agency approach if a young person is reported missing from care.
“In cases where there may be a risk of significant harm to the child, a multi-agency strategy meeting is held.
“This weighs up the level of risk the young person faces and what additional support and action needs to be taken to help prevent them running away again.
“The figures on children going missing must be seen in context.
“Essex County Council is the second largest local authority in England, by population, and therefore is responsible for the care of a high number of children.
“The details of children missing from care are regularly reviewed by senior managers within the county council and its partner agencies to help make sure that the multi-agency arrangements already in place remain effective.”
Ofsted, who carry out inspections at some children’s services, said the welfare and protection of children is a priority.
Representatives for the watchdog added: “It is always a concern when children and young people go missing, especially those in care as they can be the most at risk.
“We expect local authorities to do all they can to minimise the risk of children going missing.
“Thankfully children that go missing usually return or are found quickly.
“On inspection, we check whether children are spoken to on their return about why they went missing, to try and prevent repeat incidents.”
Young people affected by the issues in this article can call 0800 1111 free of charge.