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Part 2 – Responding to the needs of all children and young people who go missing

Key principles

  • The safety and welfare of the child is paramount
  • Locating and returning the child to a safe environment is the main objective
  • Effective communication and information sharing between agencies is key
  • Child protection procedures will be initiated whenever there are concerns that a child who is missing may be at risk of significant harm
  • The police will act on any report of a child missing
  • Every ‘missing’ child who returns will be interviewed by someone other than the direct carer
  • Information from return interviews will be analysed for causation patterns to inform prevention activity

Strategy and procedure

South Gloucestershire’s approach to managing missing episodes is a key element of the authority’s wider strategy to ensure that it is a responsible corporate parent and effectively safeguards children.

Service leads:

  • Service Manager, Corporate Parenting is the senior lead for working with partner agencies to ensure that there is a systematic response whenever a looked-after child goes missing from their care placement.
  • Service Manager, Social Care is the senior lead for working with partner agencies to ensure that there is a systematic response whenever a child not in care goes missing, and for young people at risk of sexual exploitation.
  • Service Manager, Strategic Safeguarding is the senior nominated lead for all missing children in South Gloucestershire.
  • Service Manager, Preventative Services is the senior lead for working with partner agencies to ensure there is a systemic response whenever a child known to preventative services goes missing and for overseeing the return interview process.

Information sharing

When there are concerns about a child’s safety or well-being, it may well be necessary to share information with other agencies. The safety and welfare of a child must be the first consideration when making decisions about sharing information about them.

Specific additional procedures apply if a child is in the care of the local authority (looked after children), or is receiving a service from Children’s Social Care (see Part 4 below). Agencies working with children and their families and carers must use well established, comprehensive, transparent and consensual information sharing systems and processes that place the individual at the centre of how their information is used.

This must be delivered in accordance with:

  • Data Protection Act (1998)
  • Children Act (1989)
  • Human Rights Act (2000)
  • Children Act (2004)
  • And other relevant legislation and guidance.

All information obtained and shared in support of this protocol must be fully recorded within the organisation’s management systems and be clearly referenced to the evidence and the information upon which decisions have been made. This must include details for any third parties and full details of all the information/evidence that they have supplied/been given.

Aggregated information

Information relating to children missing from home, care and school helps South Gloucestershire Children’s Services and partners to have a picture of missing patterns in their area. Through reporting this information, South Gloucestershire’s Safeguarding Children Board can use this information to inform local service provision and to ensure that the necessary procedures are in place to respond to the needs of children who go missing. The Missing from home, care and school subgroup of the Safeguarding Children Board will be responsible for collating and analysing this information.

Procedures and protocols are in place to ensure that information about children who are reported missing (from home as well as care) is shared between the police, children’s social care and specialist commissioned services.

This information is used strategically, with patterns of missing individuals or by groups of children identified and with local services responding appropriately to reduce the instances of going missing by these children.

Regional arrangements and cross-border issues

Where children missing from one local authority area present themselves in another local authority, it is important that the authority where the child is found (also known as the receiving authority) works with the authority where the child usually resides (also known as the home authority) to ensure they get access to the help and support services they need. Responsibility for making safeguarding enquiries rests with the ‘receiving’ local authority. If this local authority is not the one in which the child normally resides, it may negotiate with the ‘home’ local authority to continue with these enquires.

Avon and Somerset Constabulary works closely with relevant forces to ensure that children who go missing and present themselves in another area are protected and returned to their family or placement with due care and consideration being taken for their welfare.

Children who may be at risk if returned home

If there is concern that the child may be at risk if returned home, the child should be referred to Access and Response Team (ART) or their allocated social worker in order for an assessment of their needs to be undertaken and appropriate arrangements made for their accommodation.

If a police officer has reasonable cause to believe that a child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm if returned home (an immediate risk), under Section 46 of The Children Act 1989 they may remove the child to suitable accommodation and children’s social care must be involved in this decision making process.

Not all children who go missing from home or care are in need of emergency accommodation. However, if a child is deemed to be at risk of sleeping rough or with someone they have just met, these children need somewhere safe to go and need to know how to access that provision, so that they are not put at even greater risk. It is the responsibility of South Gloucestershire Children’s Social Care to ensure that such accommodation is genuinely available in an emergency, and can be accessed at any time of the day or night. Access to this accommodation will be via a referral to social care.

Other related issues

Child abduction: Where a child has been abducted or forcibly removed from their place of residence, this is a ‘crime in action’ and should be reported to the police immediately.

Forced marriage: Some children go missing because they are at risk of abuse. Forced marriage in particular can lead to young women going missing from home. South West Child Protection Safeguarding Procedures re Forced Marriage.

Grooming for potential sexual exploitation: In some cases children may go missing following grooming by adults who will seek to exploit them sexually. Evidence suggests that 90 per cent of children subjected to sexual grooming go missing at some point. The CSE guidance and SERAF should be used to assist in identifying those children who may be at risk and to assist in informing what action practitioners should take. CSE SERAF and guidance.

Child trafficking: The trafficking of UK born or foreign children may be for the purposes of sexual exploitation, domestic servitude or for other reasons. Children may be trafficked within the United Kingdom, or brought in from abroad. For example a child may be trafficked from Bristol to South Gloucestershire, or within South Gloucestershire. South West Child Protection Procedures in relation to exploitation and trafficking of children.

Push/pull factors – addressing the causes for children going missing

Push factors

  • Problems at home – ranging from arguments with parents to long-term abuse or maltreatment
  • Family break-up – children drawn into their parents’ conflicts are less likely to do well at school and more likely to truant or go missing from home
  • Mental health problems – a disproportionate number of children who go missing from home have a mental health problem
  • Bullying – children who are being severely bullied are more likely to go missing from school and home or care
  • Teenage pregnancy – some young women go missing or are forced to leave home because they become pregnant (or fear that they may be pregnant). They may also be in denial about their pregnancy, meaning that they are not getting the advice they need about pregnancy options. There is also a greater risk of pregnancy when girls go missing, and those working with them will need to ensure they have rapid access to confidential contraception and sexual health services to prevent unwanted pregnancies

Pull factors

  • Going missing to be near friends or family – especially when a child is in care and there are problems in contact arrangements with family and friends
  • Grooming for potential sexual exploitation or child trafficking – children may go missing following grooming by adults who will seek to exploit and/or harm them

Assessment of need Single Assessment Framework (SAF)

The use of the SAF as a means of analysing the child’s needs enables practitioners to combine their assessment with that of any other professional who might already be working with a child or have completed a specialist assessment for them. With consent from the child (where it is considered they are competent to do so) and in most cases their parents, practitioners from different agencies are able to share information about a child’s needs, enabling them to work more effectively together, build up a holistic picture and develop a better co-ordinated response. The lead professional provides a main point of contact for the child and where appropriate their family and helps the child and their family to access services.

Where an individual needs assessment indicates the child may be at risk of harm, a referral should be made to Access and Response Team (ART). An evaluation of whether the child is likely to go missing from home in the future will be one of the factors that informs the level of risk posed to the child, and the decision as to whether a referral to children’s social care is appropriate. The assessment of whether a child might go missing again should be based on information about their:

  • individual circumstances, including family circumstances in which the child has gone missing
  • motivation for going missing
  • possible destination
  • recent pattern of absences (if any)

When children missing from home are located but have not been reported missing to the police by their families, further investigation might be warranted. It may be necessary to inquire into whether there are any continuing safeguarding concerns, or whether the child and their family should be offered family support services.

Consideration should be given to carrying out a new assessment every time a child goes missing. The persistence of this behaviour would suggest at least that the action following from earlier assessments should be reviewed and alternative options considered.

Where a child is identified as at risk of significant harm, a referral should be made to Access and Response Team (ART).

It may be that the child is already allocated to a social worker, as either a child in need or subject of a child protection plan. If this is the case the process for children missing from home is followed but with the involvement, assessment and support of the allocated social worker.

Assessing risk

Professional judgement will need to be used in deciding the level of risk a child is at in relation to either a single episode of going missing or repeat episodes and should take into consideration the circumstances of the child and their absence(s). This will include detailed consideration of:

  • The legal status of the child
  • Age of child – e.g. 10 years or under; 11 to 14 or 15 up to 18 years of age
  • The maturity and general vulnerability of the child
  • The circumstances of the absence, especially concerns about state of mind e.g. unusual behaviour prior to disappearance, disappeared with no prior indication, or seemed troubled
  • Environmental factors including weather, time of year, time of day, community events
  • Family or relationship problems, or recent history of family conflict or abuse
  • Previous behaviour patterns and history of the child, especially previous history of absence
  • Whether the child:
    • Lacks reasonable awareness of the risks associated with going missing, including learning difficulties
    • Needs essential medication or treatment not readily available to them e.g. inhaler, insulin
    • May not have the physical ability to interact safely with others or in an unknown environment, e.g. visually impaired
    • Has a mental illness or psychological disorder that increases risk of harm to themselves or others
    • Has previously disappeared and suffered or was exposed to harm whilst missing
    • Has a history of suspected suicide or self-harm
    • Has a tendency to drug, alcohol, or substance misuse/dependency
    • Is perceived as missing to or from someone or a situation
    • Is known to associate with adults or children who present a risk of harm e.g. sexual offenders, offenders against children
    • An ongoing victim of bullying, harassment, or exploitation e.g. racial, sexual etc.
    • A victim or potential victim, of abduction, forced marriage, female genital mutilation or trafficking, including for sexual exploitation
    • At risk of posing a danger to others and the risk of offending
  • Any circumstances within the home/foster home that may be relevant to the absence, such as:
    • Involvement in violent and/or racial incident or confrontation prior to disappearance
    • The influence of peer groups, families or friends
    • The predatory influences on the child e.g. others want to use the child for crime, sex or drugs
  • Details of any locations, where the presence of the child will or will not be permitted, or that may be a cause of concern
  • Financial problems
  • Use of Facebook or any other social networking sites
  • School, college or employment problems
  • Any other particular circumstances at the time of the incident which might be relevant

Management of missing episodes

Children are reported missing due to concern for their welfare; the reasons behind any missing episode can be vastly variable. The key to reducing future missing episodes is understanding the causal factors behind the episode and then ensuring that advice and support is offered to address these.

Within any missing episode there are sources of information that can assist in understanding any ongoing needs of a child; the police missing person report, any information from social care files, which could be current or historical and the information gathered as part of the return home interview (RHI) process.

Where needs are identified as part of the RHI process, these will be acted upon, either by informing the child care social worker or preventative services (PS) worker if the child’s case is already open, or by an internal referral to preventative services. Where there is an identified need for the case to be considered for assessment by children’s social care, the RHI will act as a referral to ART, who will process the referral in the usual way.

Some children will go missing on more than one occasion and others will go missing frequently. For this group of children, it is important that their missing episodes are scrutinised through the convening of a missing management meeting by the lead professional, which enables the police to devise a Trigger Plan for response to future episodes. All missing management meetings should involve the Team  Around the Child, including parents/carers and the police missing person co-ordinator. There is a standard proforma for these meetings. The format of these meetings must be followed as it enables the police to be provided with the information they will need to draw up a Trigger Plan, if for any reason they are unable to attend the meeting.

The need for a missing management meeting needs to be made on a professional assessment of risk about the episode in question and the likelihood of future missing episodes. Factors that need to be considered when making the decision about whether to hold a missing management meeting are:

  • the number of episodes in 6 months
  • a single episode of 24 hours or more which is of concern
  • periodic episodes which appears to be continuing with no evidence of any change in push/pull factors
  • they are requested by the police
  • a first formally reported episode makes reference to previous unreported episodes which raises concerns about carer/parent responses when the whereabouts of their children are unknown
  • clear messages about inappropriate reporting by parents/carers are not being adhered to and there may be benefit of holding a meeting to ensure parents/carers understand their roles in seeking to find their children prior to reporting.
  • associations or locations highlighted within the report give rise to concern about a young person

Some missing episodes will provide evidence or suspicion that a child has or may have suffered significant harm whilst they were missing. In this circumstance a strategy discussion should be held. Whilst it is important that the management of future missing episodes are considered, this should not take precedence over ensuring the child’s immediate safety. Where a strategy discussion is held and it is not possible or appropriate to complete the trigger plan at the same time, the manager who chairs the strategy discussion is responsible for ensuring the communication with the police missing person co-ordinator to ensure there is a Trigger Plan on file within one week of the strategy discussion.