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 children and young people going 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.
Evidence shows that missing is a major issue impacting looked after children – last year over 12,000 children who were looked after went missing in over 81,000 missing incidents. These children are some of the individuals at highest risk across the UK of going missing – 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
Unhappiness in a home or placement
Child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation
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.
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. It is thus essential that professionals and carers understand when to report an incident to the police.
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.
Additionally, we believe a more relationship-based and child-centred approach to missing will more generally reduce numbers of missing episodes. We believe placement stability and healthy support networks around looked after children can help prevent missing episodes in the first place, as children are more likely to trust and talk to professionals around them. Moreover, we think secure attachments to carers allow for a better response when individuals do go missing and return. Strong relationships can create safe spaces when children return, so that they can 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. This is vital, as young people who took part in our recent consultation spoke about the need for carers to offer support and understanding if a child goes missing, rather than reacting 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 avoid 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.
We would recommend that the Review alongside local partnerships should be asking:
We acknowledge that looked after children going missing is only one of many issues surrounding the care system, but 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.