Response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England

We at Missing People are very pleased to see the ongoing work on the government-commissioned Independent Review of Children’s Social Care in England. The ambitious project is looking at the children’s care system and at how best to ensure looked after children get the support that they need. We are in support of its efforts to centre the voices of people with lived experience, as well as many of the early thoughts published in its preliminary report, ‘The Case for Change’. We strongly agree with the Case for Change’s findings that increases in robust support networks, access to mental health support, awareness of harms outside the home, and the role of the child’s voice in decision-making are vital and will help provide children and young adults with the support that they need.

However, we believe that the issue of missing from care should be given more focus in the Review. Otherwise, there is a risk of missing opportunities to address serious harms facing many looked after children.

The Issue of Missing Needs to be Considered

Evidence shows that missing is a major issue impacting looked after children. In 2020, over 12,000 children who were looked after went missing in over 81,000 missing incidents. 1 in 10 looked after children are reported missing compared to 1 in 200 children nationally. Going missing is often an indicator that something is wrong in a child’s life – it may be a warning sign of harm that the child is experiencing at the hands of others, or that they are unhappy in their placement or not receiving the support they need. The Review is a key opportunity to consider missing and how we can better respond when a child goes missing from care, particularly as missing is inextricably entwined with so many of the other harms that children in care are facing. These include:

Mental health issues

  • As the Review states, looked after children are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health, as they are disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse, neglect, disadvantage, parental bereavement, disability, and serious illness before coming into care. Going missing is entwined with poor mental health as it can be one of the key reasons why children go missing. Mental health issues, including risks of suicide or self-harm, is one of the most commonly raised issues on the Missing People Helpline, and 1 in 5 young people have disclosed suffering from mental health issues on return home from a missing episode.

Unhappiness in a home or placement

  • Unhappiness in a children’s care home or placement is one of the most commonly raised issues on the Missing People Helpline. Responses from our Children and Young People’s Consultation Report indicate that placements often are not meeting children’s needs, and that the challenges facing young people in placements are key push factors for young people going missing. Two responses include:
      • “Living in care isn’t the same, people are paid to care for you, you don’t get the same affection as with a family, its lonely.”
      • “Problems at home, issues with other young people, not liking staff… You don’t want be at the placement as it doesn’t feel like home.”

Child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation

  • Looked after children and young people are known to be at significant risk of being groomed for exploitation – see government guidance on sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation. Missing is entwined as we know that exploitation is a common catalyst for disappearances – for example, 7 in 10 children and young people who have been sexually exploited have also been reported missing. Additionally, we know that while exploitation can be a catalyst, it is also a common consequence of missing, and thus the disproportionate numbers of looked after children going missing suggest that looked after children are likely to have increased exposure to these harms.

If we can improve the response to missing – including ensuring clear procedures are in place for supporting children on their return and escalating them to additional support when needed, and working harder across multi-agency partnerships to prevent children from going missing in the first place – we might be able to better protect looked after children from the harms that the Review has identified them to be at risk of experiencing.

The Need for Nuance

Although going missing is a warning sign of a range of harms as discussed, we also think it’s vital for the Review to consider the need for more nuance around reporting children missing from care.

In some cases looked after children may be being reported as missing inappropriately, which can have a negative impact on their wellbeing and may risk criminalising them. Research has shown that looked after children may be over-exposed to policing and reported missing when other children would not be. Over-reporting can contribute to poor relationships between child and carer, can increase distrust in the police, and at worst can criminalise children.[1] It is thus essential that professionals and carers understand when to report an incident to the police.

Pushing for a child-centered approach

To do this we need to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach with children automatically being reported as missing, and instead consider each child as an individual – weighing up their circumstances and any information about risks, and considering their rights and independence. None of this should mean children who are at risk go unlooked for, but instead a more nuanced approach would mean children are only reported missing when there is real concern for their safety.

This links strongly to the issues covered in The Case for Change regarding the lack of contact between children and social workers. We believe that increased opportunity for relationship-building between children and the professionals responsible for their care would reduce unnecessary reporting, as familiarity is crucial to social workers’ understanding and assessment of risk. Carers and social workers who can notice indirect communication and changes in behaviour will be able to accurately recognise whether missing episodes are warning signs of deeper harm and in need of reporting or not. During a recent consultation that we carried out with looked after children, some young people spoke about being reported missing when they were just socialising with friends, or having some time to themselves. In these cases, familiarity between children and their carers or social workers could better inform decision making when the young person was not where they were supposed to be, and allow for more a more nuanced approach to reporting that is based on the child’s individuality and best interest.

What do the young people say?

We believe a more relationship-based and child-centered approach to missing will more generally reduce numbers of missing episodes. Placement stability and healthy support networks can reduce episodes, as children are more likely to talk to professionals around them. Moreover, strong relationships can create safe spaces when children return. These allow children to talk about any harms they may have experienced and work willingly with professionals to address the reasons why they went missing, thus reducing the likelihood of repeated episodes.

The young people who took part in our recent consultation agreed. They spoke about the need for carers to get to know them. To offer support and understanding if they go missing, rather than react negatively:

“Carers are supposed to help us but it feels like it’s about controlling what we do.”

“Don’t blame me for everything, try to understand why I went. Let me feel I can come back, and you want me back.”

“Talk to me, get to know me, don’t judge me, understand why I might go missing and help me manage those feelings and situations before it gets out of hand. Young people go missing for a reason, try to understand that. When we go don’t be angry or make us feel bad.”

We want the care system to shift to taking a more nuanced and relationship-based approach to missing, which will reduce issues of inappropriate reporting and put a greater focus on prevention.

Discussions around improving this response to missing are vital, and we believe that the scope, breadth, and varied contributing stakeholders of the Review means it is a key opportunity that should not be missed.

Questions to Ask

We would recommend that the Review alongside local partnerships should be asking:

  • How are children’s services, care settings and multi-agency partners planning effectively to prevent missing episodes when making placements? This includes decisions to place children out of area.
  • How is the care system addressing the risks of over and under-reporting of children as missing?
  • What processes are in place for responding on a child’s return?
  • How well is information sharing between partners working during a missing episode to ensure children are found safely? Are the roles and responsibilities of carers, social workers and multi-agency partners clear?
  • Does going missing trigger reviews of a child’s care plan? Is going missing seen as an opportunity for escalating children to additional support when needed?

We acknowledge that looked after children going missing is only one of many issues surrounding the care system. However, we think an improved response is vital considering the scale of the issue and the potential for harm to young people if we don’t get this right.

Read More

See All Updates From The Review

 

Read The Case For Change Here

[1] https://howardleague.org/publications/ending-the-criminalisation-of-children-in-residential-care/