“People are paid to care for you” | Why missing from care rates are so high

Today, we are looking at the alarming missing rates of children in local authority care.

Looked-after-children in local authority care are going missing at a very high rate. Significantly, a much higher rate than that of the general population of children:

  • 1 in 10 looked-after-children go missing from care, versus the 1 in 200 who are not in care.

The missing rates of 3 specific groups of looked-after-children are particularly alarming:

Exploited Children

  • 48% of looked-after-children identified as exploited went missing in 2020.
  • On average, each of those children went missing 10.6 times per year.

Trafficked Children

  • 31% of looked-after-children identified as victims of trafficking went missing in 2020.
  • On average, each of those children went missing 8 times per year.

Unaccompanied Children

  • 13% of looked-after-children identified as unaccompanied went missing in 2020.
  • On average, each of those children went missing 2.5 times per year.

Why are the missing figures for looked-after-children so high?

There are many reasons why children in care go missing, but these children are disproportionately likely to face many of the harms heavily linked to missing episodes. These include:

Mental health issues

  • Looked after children are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health. They are disproportionately likely to have suffered abuse, neglect, disadvantage, parental bereavement, disability, and serious illness before coming into care. Mental health 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.

Exploitation and Trafficking

  • Many looked-after-children are victims of exploitation and trafficking. Across the UK, gangs target vulnerable young people and force them to do things like move and sell drugs. Our studies show that local authorities identified over 3,000 children as victims of exploitation, and over 1,200 children as victims of trafficking.
  • Children regularly go missing whilst involved in child exploitation and/or trafficking activity. Gangs and groomers lure and coerce young people away from safety. They often force young people to travel around the country, with little or no communication with their loved ones. Young people also go missing whilst trying to escape exploitation, as well as find themselves targeted by gangs whilst already away from care. The connection is strong. For example, 7 in 10 children and young people who have been sexually exploited have also been reported missing.

Unhappiness in care home or placement

  • Unhappiness in a care home or placement is also one of the most commonly raised issues on the Missing People Helpline. Responses from a Consultation that Missing People did with young people indicate that care homes are often not meeting children’s needs. The challenges facing young people in placements are key reasons for missing episodes. One young person told us:

“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. It’s lonely.”

Giving Young People a Voice

Importantly, while going missing is a serious warning sign of harm, we also think it’s vital for child protection agencies to consider more nuance when reporting children missing from care.

Young people talk about their carers reporting them missing when they were just socialising with friends, or having some time alone. Inappropriate reporting can have a negative impact on children’s wellbeing – over-exposing them to the police. In these cases, young people have said that familiarity between them and their carers could better inform decision making. Therefore, we want the care system to shift to a more relationship-based approach to missing, that is based in the child’s best interest. This would help reduce issues of unnecessary reporting.

“Children and young people in care are more likely to be reported missing, and more likely to experience harm. We desperately need to take a more child-centred approach, with the professionals and systems around young people being flexible to meet their individual needs. Local partnerships need to come together and prevent young people from being reported missing in the first place. And to provide support to those who do go. Professionals need to build relationships with young people. They need to understand their unique circumstances, experiences and views, so support can best be provided.”

– Josie Allan, Senior Policy and Partnerships Manager

Support Services for Those in Care

Children deserve to feel safe in their environment, and to have access to the support they need. The very high figures surrounding children going missing from care highlight just how needed support services are for young people who are thinking of going missing.

Our services are free and confidential. We never judge.

Firstly, our Is This OK? chatbot is a space for young people, aged 13 – 18, to chat anonymously about what they are going through to trained professionals who care.

Secondly, our SafeCall service is a safe space for both young people who are victims of exploitation, and their carers, to talk and receive support.

Read Our Reports on Missing From Care

Children are going missing from care at an alarming rate. Below you can read the full studies we have carried out with ECPAT UK on the missing rates of exploited, trafficked and unaccompanied children.

Read the Full Report on Exploited Children Going Missing From Care

Read the Full Report on Trafficked and Unaccompanied Children Going Missing From Care

Thanks to People’s Postcode Lottery

It is all thanks to all players of People’s Postcode Lottery that we can continue our mission to #FindEveryChild, and can remain a lifeline to missing people and their families left behind. This Find Every Child week is held with thanks to all players for their continued support for the past 13 years.