The figures – drawn together through freedom of information (FoI) requests – show some of the country’s most vulnerable children are disappearing from residential homes and foster placements, sometimes for hours or days, sometimes for months and even years.
In Norfolk a five-year-old boy was missing for nearly two years, while in Essex a baby girl under one was missing for four months.
The data, gathered in a joint investigation with OpenWorld News
, shows that from January 2012 to December 2013 there were more than 24,000 incidents where children went missing. The true extent of the problem may even be much bigger, as many local authorities refused to reveal their data.
It is thought the babies who go missing (very much a rarity in terms of the statistics) are taken by parents during care visits. But by far the biggest number of missing episodes identified involved children from 10 to 16: children like Annie.
Annie’s story: ‘All your choices are taken away’
Annie was 13 when she ran away from her foster care placement. Placed in the middle of nowhere, miles away from home, she says she realised that going missing was dangerous but was so desperate, and didn’t feel she had any other choice.
“Because all your choices are taken away from you, you’re not allowed to make any decisions but actually the one thing I can do is physically move myself away so I guess it’s the one last little bit of control I had left,” she told me.
We were trash. We were just tramps. If they were interested, they would have put their foot down a long time ago.Claire
When Annie was eventually found safe and well with a relative, she says all the focus from social services and the police was about taking her back. No one was asking why she had gone missing in the first place.
“It was not about what happened while I was missing,” she said, “was it scary, or actually, what caused you to do something so dangerous. What pushed you to that point?”
Claire’s story is very different yet depressingly familiar at the same time. She was put into care at her mother’s request. Claire had been groomed by older men from the age of 12, and her mother Vanessa simply felt she couldn’t protect her any more. But once she went into the home, both admit the problem just got worse. Vanessa said: “She was going missing for not just days: it was weeks on end.”
Claire said she would sleep in the home all day, go out to be picked up by the men in the evening and return home the next morning. She says it was common knowledge that she was having sex with many men, who were much older. She said social services and the staff just didn’t care: “We were trash. We were just tramps. If they were interested, they would have put their foot down a long time ago.”
Yet while both Claire and her mother are critical of the authorities, they acknowledge that girls in Claire’s situation can be difficult to help. In recent years, as more has become known about the links between children going missing from care and sexual exploitation, there is a renewed focus on tackling the problem.
Police as ‘taxi service’
Privately the police and those who work in care express their frustration. Often it’s the same children who go missing repeatedly. Do you put the police on full scale alert every time? Or do care home staff exercise their judgement if children go missing to see the same friends or to visit family but always come back? What happens on the one occasion when those children don’t return from being “missing” at the usual time?
Police have also complained in the past about being used as a sort of “taxi service” by care homes who send them out to pick up children who are missing but not thought to be in any danger.
What is being done?
The government is moving on this. It has issued new guidance to care home staff to make sure that any child who has gone missing is interviewed by someone independent to establish why they left and what happened while they were gone. They have also brought in new arrangements for collecting data on this – the accepted view across the board that it is currently something of a mess – and the new Ofsted inspection framework will put much more focus on children who go missing.
It is an acknowledgement of problems which are not new to the care system but at least now seem to be being taken more seriously: that children in care can be profoundly unhappy and very vulnerable, and that running away is a very obvious sign that something is badly wrong.
Dealing with their unhappiness may not always be possible, but keeping them safe should be the least the system can do.
Tune in to Channel 4 News from 7pm on Friday to watch Jackie Long’s report