Missing Children – The role of the Police


When a child is reported missing the lead agency is the police. In this article we take a comprehensive look at their role and what procedures they should follow to locate a child safely.

What will the police do?

On receipt of a missing child call, the police should obtain full details of the child, including age, gender and descriptive detail.  They should also establish the circumstances of how, when and where the child went missing. They will also want to know about specific risks relating to the child, e.g. whether they may be at risk of sexual exploitation, might self-harm, may be suicidal or involved in gangs etc. Once they have these details they should despatch an officer to the scene. This officer is known as the Initial Investigation Officer. However, in some cases where there is no apparent risk, a police officer might not be deployed, and details are obtained over the phone. Police generally use the term MISPER (MISsing PERson) to describe a missing person.

What actions will the initial investigating officer take?

The initial investigating officer should carry out the following actions:

  • establish the circumstances and gather detailed information about the missing child. This will include their lifestyle, any physical or mental health issues, medication taken, habits etc.
  • confirm if the child has taken anything with them e.g. clothing, mobile phone, passport, cash or bank card
  • identify and where possible, speak to the last person(s) to have seen the missing child
  • carry out a search of any premises that are relevant – this may be the person’s home address, workplace or other building connected to them e.g. lockup garage, school
  • consider seizing items belonging or used by the missing person such as computers, mobile phones, diaries, bank statements if relevant
  • ask for details of any social media accounts used by the missing child. They may also need access to usernames and passwords
  • obtain a photograph of the missing child. This should be a recent photograph and one that bears a current likeness at that time. It is often useful if 2 or 3 different photographs are supplied. Ideally any photograph should be in a digital format but where they are not stored digitally, the officer should take hard copies
  • consider obtaining biometric evidence – this is physical evidence of the missing person’s identity such as DNA or fingerprints (see below)
  • pursue or instigate any immediate and relevant enquiries, that might lead to quickly locating the missing young person. Dependent on the level of risk this could include the deployment of specialist police units such as a helicopter, search dogs, search and rescue units
  • make an initial assessment of risk
  • inform a supervisor – in high risk cases this should occur immediately

Where police assess and deal with a missing child they believe is ‘no apparent risk’ some of the above action may not be relevant. However, regardless of the risk grading, police should always:

  • create a record of the missing incident – this can be on the force’s command and control system, and/or a specific force missing person system
  • set out a plan of action to locate the person – an action plan will generally be undertaken by police, but the reporting person may be directed to carry out certain actions, depending on the circumstances of the incident
  • ensure that the missing person is circulated as missing on the Police National Computer (PNC)
  • make a notification to children’s social care

Why do the police search the address?

It is best practice for police to search the missing child’s home address. However, police have no legal power to enter and search private premises in missing person cases unless certain criteria apply. In most cases searches are conducted with the consent of the owner or occupier of the premises. Any consent should be obtained in writing. Where consent is refused the police will record the refusal and the reason for it. However, where a police officer has information, which gives him/her reasonable grounds to believe that someone inside is at serious risk of harm, they may enter to save life or limb, or prevent serious damage to property (S17 Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984).

Our Comment: Searching can get many people riled. Parents often wonder why police are looking under a bed or in the loft when they should be out there trying to find their child. Many care home staff and foster carers also question why they routinely go through the same process for a regular repeat missing child, sometimes on a nightly basis. The important thing to remember is that a missing episode can be the first indicator that a serious crime has occurred or is in progress. There have been many high-profile cases where missing people have either hidden themselves, or have been concealed by others in their own homes. When we provide training to police officers, our message (as dramatic as it sounds) is that the starting point for every missing episode should be – “THINK HOMICIDE”, until you are reasonably happy that it is not.

Another bone of contention is the extent of the search. Police officers searching a child’s bedside drawers frequently get comments from worried and irritated parents/carers such as “you are not going to find her in there are you”. They are right of course but the search isn’t just about physically looking for the person, it is about identifying items that may assist in locating the person – diaries, phones, documents, passport, suicide notes etc. The extent and invasiveness of a search should be influenced by the circumstances of a case. Police officers should remember to be professional in their searching. It is easy for police officers to fall into the trap of not searching properly because it is the third time the child has been missing from the care home in 7 days. It is not just about a ‘room search’ and a ‘toothbrush collection’ (for DNA). It is an investigation into a person’s disappearance regardless of how many times they have been missing before.

Why do police take Identification samples?

Fatalities from missing person cases are few (compared to overall numbers). However, the reality is that each year a small minority of people never return and are later discovered deceased. The discovery of a missing person’s body may be many years after they disappeared. Many police forces have open missing person cases dating back 60 years. Samples taken for fingerprinting or for DNA testing are required for identification if a body is located and identification is not possible by other means. Police will normally take items for DNA testing, as it is rare to take items for fingerprint evidence. The items should have been used solely and recently by the person who is missing – a toothbrush, hairbrush etc. Where a missing enquiry becomes protracted or there is a suggestion that the person has taken their own life, police should also obtain the dental records of the missing person.

Our Comment: There are some people who believe the police just love to take the DNA, just to get “someone on the system”. This is incorrect in missing person cases. Any item taken in the course of a missing person’s investigation is NOT placed onto the criminal National DNA Database (NDNAD). Where a person is missing for a while and there are concerns over their safety, a decision will be made to send the source item (e.g. toothbrush) to the Lab to obtain a DNA profile. Once a DNA profile has been successfully extracted then this profile should be transferred onto the Missing Persons DNA Database. This is separate from the criminal database and purely used to match missing people to any unidentified bodies that are found. Very few cases make it onto the Missing People DNA Database each year and the vast majority of items collected from address searches by police should either be returned to the owner or are destroyed, without ever seeing the inside of a forensics laboratory.

Do they need consent?

A missing person enquiry is not a criminal investigation. Police do not have any legal powers when it comes to missing people, unless they suspect that the person’s disappearance is due to criminal circumstances. Where there is no such suspicion then police will require consent to:

  • search addresses
  • take samples for identification;
  • seize items and property (diaries, computers etc)

What will the Police supervisor do?

A police supervisor should have oversight of the missing person’s report, ensuring that the initial risk assessment is reviewed, confirmed or where necessary lowering or raising the original risk level. They should also set a proportionate investigative strategy and ensure that enquiries are actioned. Supervisors will normally be of Sergeant and Inspector rank. In many forces, the initial investigation will sit with frontline uniform teams, whereas in other areas it will be progressed by specialist missing person units or CID teams. It is therefore important that parents, carers or other agencies involved in the child’s welfare, quickly identify the police unit dealing. This works both ways and police should make contact with the primary carer and social services if the child is ‘Looked After’.

How do the police assess the risk?

The way police assess risk towards missing people changed in 2016, when the then current guidance was replaced by the Approved Professional Practice (APP) for Missing People. Previously, missing people had been classified into three main risk categories – Low , Medium and High. No one under the age of 18 years could be classified as Low Risk “by virtue of age”. In 2013  some police forces had also introduced an alternative way of dealing with missing person reports and reducing the overwhelming demand missing person cases were placing on police forces. This was called Absent and  an absent person was defined as “a person not at a place where they are expected or required to be and there is no apparent risk”.

Practices differed slightly between forces, but basically a person considered absent, would be assessed for risk and if there was no apparent risk, then the force would simply monitor the missing episode until the person returned. In most cases the police would not deploy, nor would they actively look for the absent person. Not all police forces adopted Absent, but those that did generally had a specific cut off period before they decided that the child should no longer be Absent, but instead should be considered missing. Timescales varied in forces but were usually between 24 and 48 hours. At the cut-off point the force would ‘revert’ the child from Absent to Missing and police would begin an investigation.

This was an odd set up, for a child who was considered Absent (no apparent risk) for a set period of time, who was then re-classified as missing would automatically be classed as a Medium risk person, because police rules did not allow them to be Low risk. If a missing person is classed as a Medium risk, then this means that there is a likelihood of harm to that person. This meant that a child could be considered as no apparent risk for 24-48 hours with no active police intervention, then as the clock ticked over the 48-hour mark, suddenly jump to someone who is likely to suffer harm and requiring a robust police response. This if you think about it, doesn’t sound too much like we were assessing the risk to that individual child, more like we are putting children into various categories and boxes. It was nonsense and as you can imagine, wasn’t very popular with many non-government safeguarding charities and organisations.

The new APP changed this and introduced a system where missing people would sit within a continuum of risk.They also abolished Absent as a seperate category of missing.

The new  ‘continuum of risk’ made it a more level playing field for everyone – adults and children.  There are now 4 levels of risk:

  1. No apparent risk (absent)
  2. Low
  3. Medium
  4. High

It is now possible for children to be classified under any of these risk level’s. Whilst at first glance this may look like not much has changed, now everyone is classified as missing. The response should now be based on all the facts known about the individual and the circumstances in which they have gone missing, rather than risks assessments on children that were often based on nothing else, other than they were deemed medium risk “by virtue of age only”.  Risk assessments should be specific to the child, dynamic, fluid and ongoing.

*PLEASE NOTE: Not all police forces have adopted all or parts of the APP. There will be variations between each force.

What factors do the police look at to calculate risk?

A child always goes missing for a reason. There may be a relatively innocent reason such as hanging out in the park with mates and ignoring the time that they must be home. For other children, particularly repeat missing children, the push and pull factors are often more complex. Going missing will be a warning sign that something is wrong in the young person’s life. It is important for all professionals dealing with that child to have a detailed knowledge of their history and any associated risks. There must be a multi-agency approach to missing children and agencies holding information on a child that is relevant, must pass this information to police so that the necessary action to locate and ensure the wellbeing of the child. Reasons a child might go missing could include, bullying, familial abuse or mental health issues. Other factors that the police will consider will include environmental influences such as inclement weather, medical issues, disability etc. The police will also consider whether the child has been a victim of crime and therefore is their disappearance a voluntary action or against their will.  It is important to reiterate that a missing child report may be the first indication of a serious crime.

How does the level of risk impact on the police response?

The police response will be directed by the level of risk. The new national guidelines are :

No apparent risk (absent) – There is no apparent risk of harm to either the subject or the public.

Police response should be: – Actions to locate the subject and/or gather further information should be agreed with the informant and a latest review time set to reassess the risk. Ownership may remain within the police contact centre.

Low risk – The risk of harm to the subject or the public is assessed as possible but minimal.

Police response should be: – Proportionate enquiries should be carried out to ensure that the individual has not come to harm.

Medium Risk – The risk of harm to the subject or the public is assessed as likely but not serious.

Police response should be: – Requires an active and measured response by the police and other agencies in order to trace the missing person and support the person reporting.

High Risk – The risk of serious harm to the subject or the public is assessed as very likely. Risk of serious harm has been defined as: “A risk which is life threatening and/or traumatic, and from which recovery, whether physical or psychological, can be expected to be difficult or impossible.”

Police response should be: – Almost always requires the immediate deployment of police resources. A member of the police senior management team must be involved in the examination of initial lines of enquiry and approval of appropriate staffing levels. There should be an Investigating Officer (IO) & possibly a Senior Investigating Officer(SIO), & a police search adviser.

Who should be involved in the risk decision process for children?

Whilst investigating missing person reports is the responsibility of the police, the information informing the risk assessment should be pulled from a variety of agencies and individuals involved with the missing child. The responsibility to safeguard should lay with all those involved and any information that affects and heightens risk, should be shared with the police. Information affecting the risk assessment should be drawn for a variety of sources where relevant and can include:

  • Police Intelligence systems
  • Social Care
  • Health
  • Education
  • Non-Government Organisations and Voluntary Groups involved with the child
  • Youth Offending Teams
  • UK Visa & Immigration
  • Parents/Carers/Family members or another person reporting the child missing

IMPORTANT – The police are entitled to expect parents and carers, including foster carers and care home staff acting in a parenting role, to act as a normal parent would when a child goes missing. This includes accepting certain responsibilities and undertaking reasonable actions to try and establish the whereabouts of the individual. Part of these responsibilities should be to have the necessary information available to provide police and others with information that may affect risk.

What contact and support can a family or other concerned people get?

Police should ensure that regular contact is maintained with the person that reported the child missing or another nominated point of contact. This could be a parent, family member, carer, social worker, key worker or anyone else who has responsibility for the welfare of the child. With Looked After Children cases police could potentially maintain contact with the carer, social worker and parent, all of whom have the right to regular updates. The contact should be a 2-way process and any contact by the child with a carer, parent etc, should be fed back to the police. The police should ensure that a point of contact is available at all times within their force. This will normally be the investigating officer but where this person is off duty, there should be a point of contact who is aware of the circumstances of the case or has access to the police missing person report.

For parents and families (in some cases foster parents) a missing child case can be an agonising and traumatic event. In addition to being supplied with regular updates, police and social care should signpost families to relevant support services. ‘Missing People’ is a UK’s charity that provides many specialised services, including a support service for families left behind. In some cases, police may decide to appoint a Family Liaison Officer (FLO) to support the family. This is rarer and generally only occurs where there is the potential that a person disappearance is due to foul play.

What type of enquires will police make?

The type of enquiries the police will conduct will be dictated by the level of risk to the missing child or any risk they may pose to the public. The response for a person who is assessed as ‘no apparent risk’ and someone who is High, will be dramatically different. The latter should involve the significant use of police resources and the oversight of a member of the police senior leadership team. Just a few of the enquiries police may undertake are:

  • deployment of police search assets – police search teams, search dogs, helicopter etc.
  • online and social media activity – this is normally carried out remotely but may necessitate police taking electronic devices for examination.
  • CCTV around the missing person last known location or at locations they have been sighted.
  • media appeals – either through the Missing Person charity, the local media or a wider appeal nationally.
  • financial – examining the persons bank accounts, cash withdrawals etc.
  • mobile phone enquiries – obtaining call data and cell site data.

Will police make a media appeal?

Most missing children cases will not require a media appeal. A police investigator should always consider a media strategy, regardless of the level of risk. It may be that after consideration and liaison with the other relevant parties it is not necessary. Alternatively any media appeal might be better if it is limited to asking the Missing People charity to put out an image and appeal on the various mediums they have at their disposal – advertising boards, social media, charities website, etc. However, the circumstances might be serious enough to require wider circulation to the press and TV media.

Our Comment: We often see problems when it comes to publicising a missing child in the media. For police, it is a valuable tool, for others it raises concerns over intrusiveness to the child and their human rights. Publicising a child’s name, age and photo in the media is never an ideal situation but it is often necessary where the risk outweighs the embarrassment and privacy issues the child might experience.

Any media decision shouldn’t be undertaken lightly and should involve police making attempts to obtain consent from those with parental responsibility (PR). Where consent is refused, then police should make efforts to explain the reasons and benefits of publicity to those with PR. Where the child is under a full care order the authority level for publicity rests at a higher level, often the Assistant Director of Children’s Services. We find that in emergency situations a media appeal is often delayed because those people that authorised to make the decision are not available. To avoid any unnecessary delay, the potential requirement for media appeals should be discussed at an early stage, preferably in a missing child strategy meeting. It is worth bearing in mind that a senior police officer can decide to publicise a child’s case in the media without consent, if there is an immediate danger; or if consent is refused and the use of publicity is required to locate and safeguard the child. Any decision to use publicity should carefully consider the impact on the missing child and whether it might have a negative effect.

Who investigates when a child is looked after in one area, but goes missing from a placement in another area?

Where a child is placed out of their local authority area, there is a statutory duty for the responsible authority to notify the host authority and other relevant services/agencies that the child is there, and provide certain information around the child’s care. Whilst there is no requirement to notify the local police in missing person cases, if a child is likely to go missing, then it would be best practice to inform the local police Missing Person Unit (MPU) that the child is residing in the area. This is particularly relevant if the child has a history of missing episodes. This information should ideally be supplied prior to the child being placed or on their arrival, given that it is very common for children to go missing within the first 24 to 48 hours of a new placement. It is also good practice for police forces to have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with all their local children’s homes and ‘other provisions’ which should include an agreement that the home will notify the local MPU when a new child arrives. It is beneficial to provide police with the risk assessment that has been received from the placing authority.  It is really important that there is communication and partnership between the police, social care and the carer.

When a child runs away it is highly likely that they will return to the responsible authority area, the place that they have the most ties – family & friends. Where the carer reports the child missing it is for the local police to receive and initiate the police investigation to locate the child. The local force will be responsible for obtaining the information required to generate a missing person report. They should explore any early investigative opportunities, seize any objects that may assist in locating the child (forensic samples, diaries, phones etc), conduct searches locally for the missing person, including the searches required at the child’s accommodation/home. One of their primary aims is to establish that the child has gone voluntary and is not a victim of crime. At some stage, it may become apparent that the child is in another force area, whether that is in the child’s responsible authority or another police area. Confirmation that a child is in an area other than the home force may come from a range of sources e.g. posts on their social media site, phone data, sightings or contact with family members in the area. In these cases where the investigating force is deciding where ownership of the investigation lies, they should apply the following two questions:

  1. who has the greatest opportunity of locating the missing person?
  2. where do the bulk of the enquiries lay?

The answer to this second question is usually where the person was last seen or is believed to be (although this is not always necessarily the case).

Where a missing child case is transferred from on police area to another, the transferring force should ensure that all information is passed to the receiving force. They must also ensure that the receiving force has received the transfer and has now taken ownership of the case. The investigation should not be closed in the original force until there is clear confirmation that the other force has taken ownership of the case.

Our Comment: Transferring cross border cases often cause a problem for police forces. The danger is that the missing child gets caught in a game of ‘who has primacy’ ping pong. This shouldn’t happen as the guidance to police forces is clear – “there must be clear and unambiguous responsibility and ownership for the investigation”. In cases where the appropriate ownership is not clear, the matter should initially be referred to a senior supervisor within each force to determine who should own the investigation.  Most ‘disputes’ are resolved at this point but in some extreme cases, it may require further escalation to chief officers. There should be no disruption to the investigation whilst the process of determining who is best placed to investigate is decided. Therefore, the force that wishes to transfer the case will retain ownership until a formal handover has been agreed. Our advice to our colleagues from social care and care provisions is to ensure you identify who the owning force is, who within that force is investigating (person and unit) and who their supervisory officer is. Where you are told that the force is no longer dealing and it has been passed to another force, then insist on being told the details of who they passed the case to.

When will the police close a missing child case?

Unless exceptional circumstances apply the police should not close a missing child case unless the child has been located and seen by police or a relevant professional. There will be occasions when this hasn’t happened but the police are satisfied that the case can be closed. An example of this could be where a child’s parents are in dispute with social care, there are no court orders and the parents take the child abroad. Once the child’s whereabouts are established and there is confirmation that they are with their parents, police could close the missing person enquiry. In these circumstances, a senior management member of police should give authority for closure. Any further safeguarding concerns should then be dealt with by way of liaison with the relevant social care departments in the country where the family have relocated to. Where the missing child has not been found, the case must remain open and be the subject to periodic reviews.

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