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Each year in the UK, there are approximately 130,000 missing incidents involving children. Going missing for a child should be treated as a substantial indicator that something is wrong in their life. There are often complex and deep-rooted reasons why a child chooses to go missing, sometimes involving a combination of several different risk factors.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for the police and social care to provide the same level of service to every missing and returning child. Whilst this is far from an ideal situation, the grim reality of public service means that the sheer volume of missing people (adults included), places great demands on safeguarding professionals. It would be foolish to think that every child will get the same 5-star response. In some police Missing Person Units (MPU’s) it is not unusual for the police supervisor to arrive at work, to be greeted with twenty overnight cases. Add that to those missing person cases that are still outstanding, and many inner city MPU’s can actively be looking for 50 plus people. With limited resources at his/her disposal, how does that supervisor identify which of these missing people are at most risk? Which ones are more likely to end in a fatality or suffer serious harm and therefore require the most resources?

The answer is proper risk assessment. It is the key to identifying and responding to those children who are the most vulnerable. Effective risk assessing should ensure that the response is proportionate and measured towards the individual. There should be no ‘one size fits all’ when assessing risk. Nor should assessments only take place at the point where a child goes missing. They should be a work in progress, involve risk planning for a child who is likely to go missing and a review process when a child returns.

However, it is much more than an assessment. It is about risk management. A good understanding of the potential risks associated to the person, will shape investigative strategies for the police and enhance the chances of locating that person safely. Effective assessment will also enable social care, police and other safeguarding agencies to proactively problem solve repeat missing children. The ultimate aim should be the prevention of further missing episodes. Below, we look at some of the considerations when assessing risk.

There is a saying when dealing with a homicide - “Find out how a person lived, and you will find out how they died”. This is called ‘Victimology’ and the theory is based on the belief that if you carry out a total assessment of the victim, you will enhance your chances of identifying the reason behind their death and the potential offender. Whilst this may seem somewhat dramatic for a missing child, this concept of victimology shares many parallels with missing people. Looking at the child as an individual, having an insight into what type of personality they are, and knowing a bit about them, will be crucial step in assessing risk. This is particularly important for repeat missing children, who are often seen by some as a nuisance, rather than a vulnerable child in crisis. Vital questions are:

  • What is their history and background?
  • What makes them tick?
  • Who and what are their influences?
  • Who are the significant people in their lives?
  • What push and pull factors exist?

Experience tells that ALL missing people have a reason for wanting to leave. What was the trigger that made this child want to go missing?

Triggers for missing may include:

  • peer pressure, harassment, bullying
  • mental health issues – depression, self-harm, suicidal
  • issues or pressures at school or college - bullying
  • cultural issues - to escape forced marriage, honour-based abuse, female genital mutilation or abuse linked to belief
  • a change of placement (for Looked after Children)
  • being a victim of sexual exploitation and grooming
  • being victim or potential victim of trafficking and modern slavery
  • substance, alcohol and drug misuse/issues
  • criminal exploitation – e.g. involvement in county line drug supply or other criminality
  • involvement in extremism/radicalisation
  • gang affiliation or membership
  • foul play

Some triggers which are often only associated with adults can also have a significant impact on a young person:

  • financial and debt problems – one example is where young people are drawn into county lines networks. These young people may well have a drug debt. They face the prospect of losing drugs or money, either to rival gangs or the police if arrested. Often it is advantageous for the group to have a young person owe them a debt, so they have a means of control. Some have been known to arrange or carry out staged robberies on their own runners, so the child becomes indebted.
  • gambling problem – in December 2017 the Gambling Commission published its annual survey of ‘youth gambling’. Their report identified that about 25,000 children aged between 11 and 16 are ‘problem gamblers’, many of them gambling through social media or computer games.
  • employment problems

Push factors are influences that push a child away from home or other safe environment. Potential push factors include:

  • unstable family environment or where there is conflict between parents/siblings
  • change in the family demographic – new family members for example a new born baby, step-siblings or stepfather/mother
  • has suffered rejection, neglect, maltreatment, physical or sexual abuse
  • absence of any parental attachment to the child and a lack of emotional care
  • parent(s) do not provide positive role model behaviours, is/are unable to communicate effectively with the child, provide poor discipline, does not give guidance or set proper boundaries
  • parent(s) replaces positive discipline with uncaring harsh or violent punishment
  • has a parent(s) with alcohol, substance, drug or mental health issues
  • has witnessed or suffered domestic violence within the family
  • comes from a broken home, is separated from a parent or has a parent in prison
  • feels socially isolated, not accepted within an environment

Pull factors are influences that draw a child away into an activity or association away from home.  Potential pull factors include:

  • to be with family members
  • staying out with peers
  • being with a girlfriend/boyfriend
  • freedom and independence
  • wanting to be back in a familiar area – this is particularly relevant to looked after children in out of area and distant placements
  • being a victim of sexual exploitation and grooming
  • becoming involved in substance, alcohol and drug misuse
  • drawn into extremism/radicalisation
  • gang affiliation or membership

There is often a combination of push and pull factors. It may be a child is initially pushed away from the family home because they have witnessed or have been a victim of domestic abuse. Their vulnerability can make them susceptible to those that will exploit, groom and pull them away from safe environments. Most people who go missing, do not choose to without some form of pressure. It is usually their circumstances that push or pull them away from where they should usually be.

When a child or young person goes missing the police require a certain amount of information, in order to assess the risk and locate the child safely. Initially, this may be fairly basic information with a requirement for more in-depth intelligence as the investigation progresses. Why have we placed the word ‘investigation’ in bold? Well, there is still a cultural issue within police forces in the UK, whereby missing people are often seen as the ‘non-sexy’ side of policing, “not really a police problem”.

Without a doubt, each year police receive and deal with many missing incidents that actually are not missing people. Welfare checks on behalf of other agencies such as the NHS are a prime example where other agencies push their responsibilities onto the police. However, those genuine missing persons, should be afforded an investigation that is proportionate to the risk. Whenever we present to colleagues on missing our message is clear – “every missing person report could be the first notification of a major crime”. Best practice from the outset would be to always “Think Homicide”, until you are satisfied otherwise. Again, this may seem somewhat dramatic, but there are plenty of missing child cases that have ended in murder. Even if a missing child is not at significant risk of foul play, there may be significant risks of accidental death.

Initial information can be separated into three areas:

  1. the circumstances in which the child went missing - where and when they went missing, time and location last seen; by whom, whether they were with anyone etc.
  2. details of the child – e.g. child's name, age, sex, date of birth; descriptive details including clothing, carer, looked after status (if applicable) etc.
  3. whether there are any vulnerabilities or risks associated with the child – medical issues, exploitative situations, physical disabilities, indications of harm etc.

Below we have listed the information we would want to know when picking up a missing person investigation. Our expectation would be that the police officer taking the report has covered this information when interacting with an individual who is reporting a child missing. We consider this the bare minimum to effectively judge the initial risk and set a robust investigative strategy:

  • personal details – name, age, date of birth, address etc.
  • physical description - height, appearance, clothing etc.
  • descriptive detail – clothing, items carried etc. Has the child taken clothing that offers adequate protection against the current weather conditions?
  • last seen – when, where and by whom?
  • physical ability - do they have the physical ability to interact safely with others or in an unknown environment, e.g. are they visually impaired, have autism, ADHD etc.
  • is their behaviour out of character? – this should be recognised as a significant risk factor. Where a person has never been missing before and it is out of character, then this should raise real concern about the persons welfare. However, this in no way suggests that a child who has been missing numerous times, isn’t also at risk during a missing episode.
  • is there any suggestion that they are a victim of crime, e.g. honour based abuse, kidnap etc?
  • is there any indication that this is a case of parental abduction?
  • is there any suggestion that they are a victim of bullying, stalking or harassment?
  • do they require urgent or essential medication or treatment not readily available to them? Is their medical history relevant – any disabilities, medical disorders, special need, life threatening illness.
  • is there any reason to believe that they are at risk of suicide or self-harm? Have they attempted suicide before?
  • is the child known to Children Social Care? Are they on the Child Protection Plan?
  • are they involved in criminality – either as a victim or perpetrator?
  • are they a victim or perpetrator of domestic abuse?
  • does the informant believe them to have been involved in any confrontational or violent incidents prior to their disappearance?
  • have there been any family problems or recent history of family conflict or abuse?
  • were there any concerns about their state of mind? Were they behaving normally or has their behaviour changed recently? Are they acting oddly, seem troubled or out of character? Is their routine different?
  • do they have any mental health issues that may increase risk of harm to themselves or others?
  • have they recently had a significant life event e.g. suicide/death in the family? Anniversaries of significant life events should also be a consideration e.g. death of a loved one.
  • have they had relationship issues or has a relationship recently broken down?
  • are they known to associate with people who present a risk of harm e.g. sexual offenders, drug dealers etc.
  • are they dependent on drugs, other substances, alcohol or gambling?
  • do they have school/college problems?
  • do they have employment problems?
  • are they under any financial pressures including any possible drug debt?
  • have the means to travel, e.g. cash, travel passes and what are the views of the informant on their ability to travel independently
  • access to finances – cash, cards etc.
  • have they been missing before? - if yes what are the details e.g. frequency, reasons, previous known risks, location found etc

Whilst this is the bare minimum, we must also remember our victimology. We would also want to know about the child’s history (particularly if in care), lifestyle, hobbies and interests. Also relevant are associations, new friendships, habitual clothing, places frequented access to phones, online presences and access to social media platform.

A consideration should also be the informant. Who is reporting the child missing, what is their relationship? What is their motive and are there any concerns around them? In the majority of cases there will not be any suspicions around the informant, but sometimes reports are made to cover a crime or because the reporting person has some other agenda. The well-known case of Shannon Matthews in 2008 is a good example. Shannon’s mother Karen claimed that 9-year old Shannon had disappeared sparking a major police investigation. This ended when police found Shannon concealed in the base of a divan, at a house associated with Karen’s boyfriend. Matthews was arrested and subsequently convicted of the kidnap and false imprisonment of her own daughter. Her motive was to generate money from the publicity.

Information comes from variety of sources, some trusted and factual, but also sometimes based on hearsay and rumour. Those conducting risk assessments need to be alert to the source and quality of the information they are using as the basis of their risk assessment. It is vital that we obtain the best factual information possible, throwing our net wide when seeking intelligence around the child. As well relying solely on police and social care systems, we also need to seek  information from:

  • parents & family members
  • friends, carers
  • relevant non-government agencies
  • GP
  • school

......and any other person who might be able to add that vital piece of the puzzle. Where there are doubts about a specific piece of information or the reliability of its source, then best practice dictates that proactive enquiries are made to either substantiate or discount its accuracy. Fact needs to be separated from opinion, although the latter is still often valuable and should not be  discounted. Often a ‘gut feeling’ is correct, but that hunch then needs to be factually explored so that your risk review doesn’t go off on a tangent, based on wrongly formed assumptions. The key is being openminded but making decisions on an evidence base. Information sharing is key to sourcing information on missing children.

Whilst preparing this article the BBC programme ‘Reported Missing’ aired in its second series. Episode 1 featured a strange case where the estranged father of a 3-year old boy reported his son missing after the mother had refused access to him. The mother denied to the police that the child had ever existed and suggested that the father was harassing her, despite photographic evidence to the contrary. One concern was that the child had been murdered.

The police contacted various social services departments in the immediate area to establish whether any had had contact with mother and child. Whilst we acknowledge that these programmes are carefully edited and we don’t see the whole picture, one of the local authorities told the officer that they could not disclose any information due to “data protection”. This is a ridiculous response. There were very serious child protection concerns and a local authority refused to provide any information.  Okay, we are probably being a bit harsh, as this was probably just one misguided individual, but it does happen more than it should. The Children’s Society report ‘Making Connections’  identified that far too many  local authorities still do not share risk assessments with local police for missing children.

The Government’s ‘Information Sharing (Advice for practitioners providing safeguarding services to children, young people, parents and carers)’ document makes it clear:

“Information sharing is essential for effective safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children and young people. It is a key factor identified in many serious case reviews (SCRs), where poor information sharing has resulted in missed opportunities to take action that keeps children and young people safe”.

The document also features the ‘Seven Golden Rules for Information Sharing’. Rule 1 states:

“Remember that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Data Protection Act 2018 and human rights law are not barriers to justified information sharing……”.

Those assessing risk need to be equipped with the fullest facts and latest information. An ill-informed risk assessment is a huge vulnerability, not only for the child, but for all the agencies involved in the safeguarding of that person.

There is still some confusion around when a strategy meeting should take place for missing children. Most local authorities together with their police partners have their own local Missing Children Protocol, usually based around the DfE guidance. Broadly speaking, we see missing meetings falling into two distinct categories, those that take place for a current missing child (Missing Child Strategy Meeting) and those that take place because a child has shown a repeated pattern of missing (multi-agency meetings for repeat missing children).   

In all cases when a child is reported missing, the police should send a notification to children’s social care, alerting CSC that the child is missing. This should be done regardless of whether that child is or is not known to social care. This is usually achieved by sending an electronic notification to the Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH) or other locally agreed pathway. The purpose of the notification is to set the clock ticking. Once the notification has been received, then a missing child’s strategy meeting should take place within a specified timeframe (normally agreed between police and social care in a localised Missing Children Protocol). Timings for strategy meetings vary considerably across the UK, from the unrealistic and unachievable 2 hours, to more manageable longer periods such as 2, 3 and 5 days. Missing Child Strategy meetings should take place between a Social Worker, police and other interested parties. The purpose of this meeting should be to:

  • discuss and review the risk – is the current risk level adequate and is the response proportionate to that risk?
  • share information about the child including the background history and any previous missing episodes
  • discuss a potential media strategy
  • discuss tactics and enquiries that will ensure the child is located quickly and safely – includes application of recovery orders, CAWN’s etc
  • plan for the return - including the prevention and return home interviews
  • discuss a potential plan to prevent a repeat of the missing episode

Repeat Missing Children

Almost 60% of the 130,000 missing children incidents per year involve children that go missing more than once. The 2014 DfE statutory guidance on ‘Children who run away or go missing from home or care’, states that “if a child has run away two or more times, local authorities should ensure a discussion is held, either with the child, their family or both, to offer further support and guidance”. The current national police definition for a ‘repeat missing person’, is a person who has been reported missing three times in a rolling 90-day period.

Missing child reports should be seen as an opportunity to identify and tackle the risks, such as linking missing episodes to exploitative situations like county lines or CSE. We have a responsibility to question why a child or young person repeatedly goes missing. The laws of averages dictate that a repeat missing child is more vulnerable, with repeated missing episodes increasing their chances of being targeted by those people who will harm or exploit them. Each time a repeat missing child goes missing, the fact that they have been missing before must be taken into consideration. However, the incident should also be treated as a unique missing episode and not dismissed as a pattern of normal behaviour. Repeat missing episodes must not be allowed to drift unchecked and a multi-agency response is required.

Unfortunately, despite the obvious dangers to young people, repeat episodes are often seen as a reason to reduce the level of risk. It is not uncommon for professionals in both the police and social care to see the child as a “regular missing child, who is not at risk because they usually return in the morning”. The reality is of course quite different, and the emphasis needs to be on prevention. DfE statutory guidance is quite clear – “where a child already has an established pattern of running away, the care plan should include a strategy to keep them safe and minimise the likelihood of the child running away in the future”.

Referrals for missing children vary across the UK, as do the timings and reasons why they are made. Often missing children referrals mean different things to different people. A referral might be made because there is information from the missing episode that leads to concerns that a child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm and therefore an enquiry under S47 Children’s Act needs to begin. In other authorities, it may mean that a referral instigates the requirement for a missing chid strategy meeting or where the child is a LAC, it can be the trigger for the care and placement plans to be reviewed.

The Missing Persons ‘Authorised Professional Practice’ (APP) is a national document from the College of Policing which provides guidance to police forces on how Missing Person investigations should be managed. This document outlines when police should make a referral to social care, whilst still acknowledging that it is for local multi-agency protocols to agree a threshold. The APP advises referral in the following cases:

  • the child is a ‘repeat missing person’, (reported as missing three times in a rolling 90-day period)
  • the child has experienced, or is likely to experience significant harm
  • where the parent or carer appears, unable or unwilling to work to support and meet the needs of a child that has gone missing

In Wales, the ‘The All Wales Child Protection Procedures’ also recommend that, where appropriate, a multi-agency meeting is convened after a child has been missing from home or care for more than seven days or has been missing on more than three occasions in a 12-month period.

The purpose of a multi-agency meeting to tackle repeat missing episodes should include:

  • to establish and understand the reasons why the child went missing
  • to establish and understand the risks and issues the child faced whilst missing
  • establish if there are/were any third parties that pose a risk to the child
  • the prevention of future episodes of missing, including putting in place any support and interventions that can potentially prevent or reduce further missing
  • share information gleaned from police prevention interviews and local authority return home interviews


An apt time to throw in the topic of photographs. A photo is one of the most important investigation aids when trying to locate a child. Without an image of the child, police tactics will be severely hampered. It can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. The provision of a photo should be a crucial part of the future risk planning. We often see repeat missing children episodes go into double figures, but there is still no photo of the child. Too often, human rights or data protection are wrongly cited as reasons why we can’t obtain a photo. Any photo should be:
  • recent
  • of decent quality
  • preferably digitalised (but not essential)
  • be of sufficient likeness (we have all had photos taken where it doesn’t look like us)

The current guidance on how police should assess risk for missing people comes from the APP. There are 4 levels of risk:

No apparent risk (absent) – there is no apparent risk of harm to either the subject or the public. Police will monitor and periodically review the missing episode. They may agree certain actions with the informant but are unlikely to deploy a police officer or make active enquiries.

Low – the risk of harm to the subject or the public is assessed as possible but minimal. Police will make proportionate enquiries to ensure that the individual has not come to harm.

Medium – the risk of harm to the subject or the public is assessed as likely but not serious. There should be an active and measured response by the police and other agencies in order to trace the missing person and support the person reporting.

High – the risk of serious harm (life threatening and/or traumatic) to the subject or the public is assessed as very likely. Almost always requires the immediate deployment of police resources and the appointment of a Senior Investigating Officer (SIO).

The introduction of the police APP in 2016 signalled the end of the missing category known as ‘Absent’. Most of the police force that used this classification have now abandoned it. Whilst there is reference to absent ‘in the ‘no apparent risk’ classification, this is confusing and unhelpful. What the new APP has done is to ensure that everyone reported as missing, is actually classified as missing. It is also now possible for children to be classified under any of these risk level’s, whereas prior to the APP they could only be Medium or High.

Despite the introduction of this new guidance, the main issue still exists – volume. With the sheer numbers of missing people, coupled with other policing demands, it is just not possible to devote unlimited resources to all missing person enquiries. This often means that there is conflict between police and other interested parties e.g. social care, family and carers. Sorting missing people into various groups according to risk, is necessary because of volume. It allows assessors to prioritise the most vulnerable and direct the investigative response accordingly. However, assessors need to be acutely aware that they are still required to base their assessment and response on all the facts known about the individual and the circumstances in which they have gone missing. Risk assessments should be specific to the individual child, dynamic, fluid and ongoing. Risk reviews need to consider the possibility and likelihood that the risk may have altered as the investigation has progressed.

Please note: Not all forces have adopted all or parts of the APP.

Whilst generally the reporting processes for looked after children are robust, the same cannot be said for those children who run away or go missing from home and who are not formerly reported missing to police. Professionals should be aware of under reporting when dealing with a child and their families. A 14-year old found by police in a park at 11pm may not necessarily be reported missing, but can the parent reasonably say they knew the whereabouts of their child at that time, and what they were doing?  This information when passed from police to social care should signal the potential that the child is beyond parental guidance and free to roam the streets unchecked.

It’s 2018 and we still see some risks assessments contain sentences like: “is streetwise and able to look after themselves”. This language is poor, and the author is likely to face some criticism if anything were to go wrong. This particular line gives the impression that the child is able to deal with everything that could possibly happen to them whilst missing.

Another stereotype is age. This exists in both main safeguarding agencies, police and social care. Until the change in the APP, a child could only be Medium or High risk.  This led to bad habits and it wasn’t unusual to see the risk classification based purely on age - “is medium risk by virtue of age only”. Even if the risk assessor has looked at all the circumstances, the language here is poor. It gives the impression that they carried out the assessment without considering any risk factors other than age. Children mature at different rates and an under confident 12-year-old might avoid a situation because they are wary, scared and suddenly think that being missing is not such a good idea after all. Whereas the 15-year-old ‘streetwise’ kid might put themselves at more risk because they mistakenly believe they are invincible and able to deal with any situation.

In social care the subject of age often becomes a problem when a missing young person reaches the age of 17. There is no doubt that it becomes legally difficult to manage a child of this age, but we often see the level of safeguarding drop significantly when a child reaches 17. There is often a view that because we have run out of ideas and the young person is not complying, simply report them missing every time just to “cover our backs”. There still needs to be safeguarding and interventions.

We have probably lost a few readers in both police and social care with these last two paragraphs, but this is the reality of some missing children. Pre-conceptions and attitudes need to change. Many children do not comprehend the exploitative situations they are exposing themselves to. Nor does the fact that they have gone missing many times before and always come back mean that they aren’t being exploited and harmed every time they go. On the contrary, it often means that the risk is far greater. Those assessing risk should always ask themselves the fundamental question – why does the child feel the need to leave what should be the relative comfort of their home? What is pushing or pulling them away?

Finally, a word of warning on risk assessments. You will be judged on what you have written down, but also what you didn’t write down will also come under scrutiny. Serious Case Reviews, internal disciplinary panels, a coroner’s inquest or a criminal trial can all be very painful experiences if something has gone wrong and you are called to justify your assessment. Rationale as to why you didn’t do something is as important as the actions you took. It is not always possible to do everything, but where that is the case, the reasons need to be reasonable, strong and justifiable.

Thanks for reading.

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