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Today the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, chaired by Ann Coffey and supported by Missing People, has launched a new inquiry into safeguarding vulnerable missing adults who have mental health issues.

There were 126,000 incidents of adults going missing reported in 2015/16 and yet there is little support available for them and few go on to receive specialist help. The inquiry found that tens of thousands of missing adults are left alone and isolated on their return home.

Up to 600 missing people a year are found dead: the most commonly known cause being suicide. Police responses to the inquiry revealed that on average up to a third of missing incidents were recorded as involving suicide or self-harm, with one force recording 42 per cent.

The inquiry heard that up to 80 per cent of adults who go missing are experiencing mental health problems and up to one third go missing again. And yet, according to the inquiry, support is rarely offered and opportunities for intervention and prevention of further harm are missed. MPs heard evidence that the police are struggling to cope alone.

The inquiry’s central recommendation was that mental health services and the Department of Health & Social Care must take on a greater role given the high levels of missing people suffering from depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

One missing woman told the inquiry that support on return was “woefully inadequate”.  She was seen by a police officer who merely asked her name, address, age and if she wanted to report any crimes. She was not questioned about why she went missing or offered any specialist support, despite being found in A&E and physically banging her head against a wall while being interviewed. The police simply agreed that she could leave when she said she would go to a friend’s house.

When a missing adult is found it is important that they are supported and everything possible is done to understand why they went missing and to help prevent them doing so again, the inquiry said.

Latest police guidance in 2017 introduced ‘prevention interviews’ to be conducted by the police as soon as a person is found to check that he or she has not experienced harm and to identify ongoing risks. But it was not clear from evidence presented to the inquiry how many police forces are conducting these or how effective they are. In addition to prevention interviews, police guidance recommends that a more in-depth ‘return interview’ should be carried out by an independent agency to assess the need for ongoing medical assistance.

But shockingly, despite this clear guidance, the inquiry established that return interviews are not being offered to vulnerable missing adults in any part of England, Wales or Northern Ireland. (They are offered in Scotland.) By contrast, a child who goes missing is automatically offered a return interview and support on return but there is no such statutory responsibility for adults.

MPs concluded that the whole response to adults with mental health problems who go missing needs overhauling and improving.

Recommendations include:

  • Better initial risk assessment and long term support. Improved training of call handlers and frontline officers to identify mental health issues
  • Health services should play a bigger role and mental health professionals should be available to assist the police at all stages of missing investigations.
  • The Department of Health should monitor numbers of people going missing from hospitals and care. About 15 per cent of missing reports relate to hospitals – with one area reporting 29 per cent. The inquiry heard that one hospital trust, where a patient detained under the Mental Health Act took his own life after going missing, was reprimanded by the Coroner for the high numbers going missing from one ward. Investigations revealed that patients had access to a button to release the door so they could let themselves in and out at will.
  • Return interviews and other specialist support should be offered to vulnerable missing adults
  • The College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Missing Persons should carry out a review of the use and effectiveness of initial prevention interviews
  • Local protocols between the police, health and social services should outline pathways to support. Protocols should include automatic strategy meetings when a person goes missing on multiple occasions.
  • The Care Quality Commission should enhance their inspection on patient safety to include the response to adults who go missing while under NHS care
  • Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary should include the response to missing people who are vulnerable because of their mental health in inspections
  • Police and NHS Trusts should map ‘hot spot’ locations with high numbers of missing reports

Ann Coffey MP, the chair of APPG and the inquiry, said: “Going missing is a red flag moment. It is a warning sign of crisis in someone’s life that should trigger support. Vulnerable people should not just be found and forgotten. The evidence is that the police are firefighting this problem almost single handed. But this is a not predominantly a police problem, it is a health problem and mental health services need to step up before more lives are lost.

Many missing people told us that returning was far more difficult than going missing because their problems have not gone away and they are desperate for help. There is no doubt that a more systematic multi-agency approach with a high input from health could prevent deaths and reduce the risk of people repeatedly going missing.”

Josie Allan, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Missing People, said: “Adults who go missing are almost always vulnerable and need better support from professionals upon their return. Going missing can be a symptom of wider issues and an improved response could ensure that people are safer and do not feel that going missing is their only option.”

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