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8.32.1 Joint Policy for Children Missing

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Recent research by The National Missing Persons Helpline tells us over 100,000 children and young people (hereafter called children) every year run away or are forced to leave home to escape problems (one every 5 minutes). Approximately 77% of those are children under the age of 16 who are running away for the first time. Approximately 33% of children in care run away 3 times or more.

Each year in Sussex 60% of the 5,680 people reported missing to the police are children. The peak age for children to go missing is between the ages of 13-16 with girls approximately twice as likely than boys to go missing. Being a regular missing person increases the likelihood of being a victim of crime, sexual offences, minor assault and theft and also increases the likelihood of the missing child committing offences.

Within Sussex there is a high correlation between the numbers of children who are missing and those who are also in the care system, either in a foster placement or a residential placement. Of the top 30 locations for repeat periods of being missing, 20 were children's homes in 2005-07 with 25 of the children missing most persistently being missing from their care placement. They may have been placed by one of the local authorities within Sussex or by another, more distant Local Authority with the residential homes often managed within the Private Sector.

Within the overall numbers of children who are missing there are groups of children who enter this category either briefly, for longer periods or repeatedly for distinct and different reasons. These include:

  • Children who go missing from home;
  • Children who go missing from their care placement;  
  • Children who become separated from their parents and who are lost as a result.

Although this policy will seek to give guidance in all these circumstances, obviously the reasons underlying why children go missing are very different for each group and so responses need to be tailored to fit the specific situation.

Children who are missing invariably place themselves at risk. The reasons for their absence are varied and complex and cannot be viewed in isolation from their home circumstances. Every 'missing' episode should attract proper attention from the professionals involved with the child and those professionals must collaborate to ensure a consistent and coherent response is given to the child on their return and that parents and carers are supported appropriately.

The police are frequent partners of children's services in managing 'missing' episodes and it is important that staff in both agencies work together. This joint policy has been developed to assist in this and combines aspects of children's services and police procedures in relation to missing persons, such that where they overlap or interface, respective actions and responsibilities are clear.



Where the policy refers to 'child' or 'children' these terms include young people under the age of 18 years.

Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character, or the context suggests the person may be the subject of crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another.

Missing Person

Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established will be considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed.

All reports of missing children sit within a continuum of risk.

The Police use four ‘risk based’ categories of missing:

High: The risk of harm to the subject (child) or the public is assessed as very likely.

Medium: The risk of harm to the subject (child) or the public is assessed as likely but not serious or there is a low chance of serious harm.

Low: The risk of harm to the subject (child) or the public is assessed as possible not minimal.

Missing Child

Where the child's location or reason for absence is unknown and/or there is cause for concern for the child because of their vulnerability or there is a potential danger to the public.

A child in this category must be reported to the police.

Children who go missing from home

Children within this group are composed of:

  • Those who are 'not known' in the sense that although they will be known to a universal service such as school or a GP there has not been previous contact with a targeted service;
  • Children who are receiving additional support from a targeted service because they are assessed to be a Child in Need. Having been missing in the past may be one factor which results in them becoming a Child in Need;
  • Children who are subject of a Child Protection Plan either due to their increased vulnerability because they have been missing in the past or because there are other concerns relating to child protection.

Looked After Children

The term "looked after children" has a specific legal meaning deriving from Children Act 1989. Under the Children Act 1989 a child is "looked after" if he or she is:

  1. Provided with accommodation for a continuous period of more than 24 hours ( Children Act 1989, Section 20 and 21 ); or
  2. Is subject to a Care Order (Children Act 1989, Part 1V).

Children who become lost

Children who because of their age or due to a degree of intellectual impairment become separated from their carers, become temporarily disorientated and become missing as a result and would wish to be found. This is clearly very frightening and upsetting for all involved

Families who go missing- Not subject of this policy:

This Policy is not intended to respond to families who go missing to evade contact with professionals. If a child is missing in this context professionals should consultChildren and Families who Go Missing Procedure.

Clearly some children absent themselves for a short period and then return and their whereabouts are known. Sometimes children stay out longer than agreed, either on purpose or accidentally, and may be testing boundaries.

Children who make telephone contact and agree a time to return, but subsequently fail to do could also fall within this definition.

This kind of boundary testing is within the range of normal teenage behaviour and not necessarily considered a risk, although a more general response such as additional parenting support and advice may be helpful as behaviour of this nature may fall within the wider safeguarding remit for services.

Children Remanded to Local Authority Accommodation

A small number of young people enter care after they have been remanded to local authority accommodation (RLAA) by a Youth Court. A child who absconds from local authority accommodation when RLAA is unlawfully at large and has, in legal terms, escaped from custody. If a child who has been RLAA goes missing from a children's home or a foster placement, then the established procedures relating to escape from custody should be followed. The investigating officer will need to liaise with an appropriate officer in the areas' Youth Offending Team.

Children Placed in Secure Accommodation on Welfare Grounds

In some cases young people are placed in secure accommodation on welfare grounds under Section 25 of the Children Act 1989. Once in a secure setting these young people are unlikely to abscond. Should they do so, the usual missing persons procedures would apply. When a child subject to a Secure Accommodation Order absconds this is considered a 'significant event' that should be reported to Ofsted.

Missing from Education

For children who are not within the care system local policies on Children Missing Education may help identify children who are not only missing from school but are also missing from home.  There may also be a further link for some children from Black and Minority Ethnic communities to Forced Marriage or Honour Based Violence.  For additional guidance see "The right to choose: multi-agency statutory guidance for dealing with forced marriage" Foreign and Commonwealth Officer 2008.

Children believed to be trafficked/subject of sexual exploitation

If staff are concerned that trafficking or sexual exploitation may be the reason for underlying prolonged or repeated periods of absence, additional guidance can be found both with the Sussex Child Protection and Safeguarding Procedures,Trafficked Children Procedure and within 'Safeguarding Children Who May Have Been Trafficked' HMSO 2008.

Children who are seeking asylum

In the case of an asylum seeking child, Children's Services are required to notify the UK Border and Immigration Agency, that National Missing Person's Helpline and the Refugee Council.


Throughout the process identified within this policy, a full record of all actions taken and messages received and given must be kept by all agencies.

Risk Assessment - Planning before the Event

As far as possible there should be an assessment in advance of any child who is judged to be likely to go missing.

In these circumstances there will be a planning meeting. Children's Services staff and Police will discuss associated risks of the child going missing. This discussion should be recorded in writing using the appropriate risk assessment tool.

In assessing the significance of a child's absence either before the event or once it has happened the following should be borne in mind:

  • The age and level of understanding of the child;
  • The legal status of the child;
  • Previous behaviour patterns;
  • The emotional needs of the child e.g. whether there has been any variation in their mood or whether they have expressed any intention to harm themselves or others;
  • Behaviour of the child as influenced by peer groups or others;
  • Whether the child is perceived as running to someone/something or running from a situation/someone;
  • The risk of offending;
  • The risk of the child being targeted for sexual exploitation;
  • The legal implications of the child breaking any court order by absconding;
  • The child's view.

If appropriate the child should have this policy explained to them so that they understand what actions will be taken if they go missing.

Once a child has gone missing, both Children's Services and Police staff should avoid dismissing the potential significance of repeated periods of missing. Often such children are immediately labelled as 'the problem' and insufficient consideration is given to why they are persistently absconding. This needs to be explored particularly at the time of the post-return interview.

In relation to reasons for going missing, a range of 'push' and 'pull' factors have been identified. 'Push factors' may include:

  • Conflict with carers, feeling powerless, bullying, being unhappy at home or in care;
  • Wanting attention by provoking a reaction to demonstrate that someone cares about them;
  • A sense of boredom and a wish to 'have fun';
  • Testing boundaries;
  • Being a victim of abuse.

Some of the 'pull factors' identified may include:

  • Wanting to be with family or friends;
  • Peer pressure to conform to established patterns of behaviour;
  • The attractions of street life or people who may present a risk.

Planning before the Event for Children in Care

In addition to the planning processes above, where there is a likelihood that a child in care may go missing from their established placement the social care pre-incident assessment should be used to assess the likelihood that the child might go missing and the risk they may face as a consequence. Children's home and fostering service staff should contribute to this assessment. All information should be included in the placement plan and in the child's care plan.

This assessment should include information on the following:

  • The likelihood of the child going missing;
  • The child's view;
  • The level of supervision /support that care staff propose to provide for the child;
  • The views of social care staff/foster carers on their child needs and the action that needs to  be taken if the child is absent;
  • The risk of harm to the child and his/her vulnerability if he/she is absent;
  • Consideration of any external influences which may result in a child's removal without consent;
  • The likelihood of the child being harboured.

Once again, the child should have this policy explained to him/her and the potential dangers that they may encounter so that he/she understands the implications of running.

Across Sussex there is a consistent approach to the planning and assessment of children in care. This ensures that thorough planning will take place and offers a full opportunity to all the statutory agencies to contribute. Planning is recorded on Looked After Children (L.A.C.) forms. When a child is placed by an external authority they will also be subject to LAC processes managed by their originating authority and residential units or foster carers must ensure that robust planning is in place should a child go missing.

Planning to Address Incidents of Specific Concern

If the running away/going missing of a child or young person is causing specific concern, e.g., by its frequent repetition or indicators of particular risk such as contact with a person who poses a risk to children, there should be a meeting to discuss the combined response to such incident and concern. This meeting should be attended by:

  • A representative of the police;
  • A representative of the local authority responsible for the child's care of sufficient seniority to be able to take authoritative decisions about the steps needed to locate and protect the child;
  • The registered manager of the children's home or the manager of the fostering service if the child is Looked After;
  • The child's social worker;
  • The parent/carer if appropriate;
  • Where the child is not placed within the boundary of their responsible authority;
  • A representative from the authority in which the child is currently living - perhaps from the local team responsible for child protection;
  • Other relevant agencies - e.g., representatives from the Youth Offending Team, Drugs Action Team, the CAMHS service etc.

Across Sussex, Police attend a number of information sharing meetings alongside partner agencies. These meetings aim to support in finding resolutions to issues regarding repeat missing children or missing incidents of concern. These meetings also focus on reviewing cases and raising concerns in relation to missing children.


The responsibility for responding to reports of children who go missing and undertaking enquires to locate them and ensure their return to a safe caring environment lies with the police.

Anyone may report a child as missing to the police; they no not have to be a parent, carer, or other relative.  Any report of a missing child must be recorded by the police area receiving the report.

The detailed police response to children who go missing is contained in the relevant Force policy and national guidance, and will not be repeated in this policy.

Children's Social Care staff will be expected to help the police in finding the child and to work cooperatively with police during any enquiry.

Even after reporting a child missing, staff should recognise that Children's Social Care are responsible for children in their care at all times, and this responsibility  remains after they have reported a child missing to the police.

When a child or young person is missing from home or has become detached from their social care staff/foster carers, the priority must be ensuring immediate safety of the child by finding them and returning them to social care staff /foster carers, providing this does not place any child at greater risk of Significant Harm.

Information to be made Available

The Police are entitled to expect that parents and care providers take reasonable steps to locate a missing person prior to making a report to the police. If there are genuine concerns as to the child’s immediate safety it will always be appropriate to report the matter to Sussex police and this should be done without delay.

The following procedure should be carried out when reporting a missing child.

  1. Before contacting Sussex Police consider sections 2) and 3) below:
  2. What is the specific concern regarding the circumstances? I.e. are there specific risk factors associated with the child?
  3. What action can be taken to resolve the situation prior to contacting the Police?
  1. Is there a means of contacting the child (e.g. phone) – and has this been attempted?
  2. Is the child suspected to be at a known location? Can this be verified by phoning or visiting the location?
  3. If appropriate has the child’s social worker, key worker or EDT been contacted for assistance with the situation.

4. Has all relevant information been gathered to provide to the Police if necessary? Prior to contacting the Police, the following information should be collected in order to assist with

  1. Places the child is known to frequent?
  2. People the child is likely to be in company with?
  3. Current description: clothing worn, hair colour and style etc.
  4. Access to travel: student rail card, oyster card, bus pass etc.
  5. Whether the child has access to money
  6. Details of the child’s care plan relevant to the circumstances?
  7. Details of social worker or other significant key worker?
  8. Knowledge of any previous missing incidents?

5. If unable to resolve, or there is an identified risk, a report should be made to either the Police Contact Centre via 101 or if there is any immediate risk to life or serious harm call 999.

6. The Police call handler will then take the details of the missing child and complete a risk assessment. The outcome of the risk assessment will determine the Police response. 

If the missing child is deemed as High, medium or low risk the Police will attend, take further details and commence search activity. In the event the child is located and returned a safe and well check (prevention interview) will be completed by the Police.


Notification of Absence for a Child in Care

When a member of children's home staff or a foster carer realise that a child is missing from their care they should consider which definition the absence falls within. Support and advice in making this decision will be available from the Children's Social Care Department responsible for the child or from the responsible out-of-hours service.

If the child is considered to fall with the definition of missing, the foster carers or residential staff must without delay inform:

  • The police;
  • The parents and those who have Parental Responsibility (the decision of when to inform parents/those with Parental Responsibility must be made in consultation with a team manager);
  • The social worker or the accountable team manager;
  • The emergency duty service if out of hours and the social worker and accountable team manager the next working day.

If the child is considered to fall within the definition of absent, the decision to record the child as such, together with the evidence supporting that decision must be recorded.

Details of children who are absent should still be notified to the police in order that a record of the child's absence can be made, and agreement reached on what needs to be done, and who will do what.

Although there is an expectation that residential staff and foster carers should continue to make reasonable enquiries to locate the child, it may also be appropriate for the police to initiate some enquiries as well.

Residential staff and foster carers should continue to regularly review the circumstances in the light of any enquiries made or information received, and inform the police of any developments. If the period of absence continues for six hours, consideration should be given as to whether the child should still be regarded as absent, or whether they should now be considered as missing. Six hours should be regarded as the maximum period before reconsideration, and in many cases a shorter period would be more appropriate.

Any case of an absent child which causes significant concern, or gives rise to the suspicion of harm, should be brought to the attention of the accountable team manager from the authority responsible for the child's care.

Informing the Media

The Police are responsible for advising the media regarding children missing from local authority care, however decisions to publicise will always be made in consultation with Children's Social Care who will consult the parents and/or foster carers.

Police Powers

Police powers are limited and difficulties can arise when missing children are found but do not want to return to their placement.

Where there is reasonable cause to believe that the child could suffer Significant Harm the police can take the child into Police Protection under the Children Act 1989, and remove to suitable accommodation which could include the home from which the child originally went missing. The police are not given the power to use force to take children into Police Protection. This is, however, a difficult area, with conflicting advice as to what the police can do in terms of using reasonable force to prevent children suffering Significant Harm.

There will be occasions when a child is found in a location that may be considered unsuitable, but where there would not be legal grounds for taking them into Police Protection. In such cases, police and the accountable manager from the responsible social services authority will need to liaise to discuss what steps may be necessary in order to safeguard the child's welfare.  This should involve consideration of possible offences being committed under the Child Abduction Act 1984

Any child unlawfully at large from a secure unit or penal establishment may be liable to arrest and returned by police.

The Return

The child should be given the opportunity to talk to someone independent of their family or of their placement about their absence. In some instances, this person could be a police officer. It may be however that the child would prefer to speak to a social worker or to an independent agency.  When a child has been missing on more than one occasion, the return interview should always be conducted separately from the child's parents/carers

The accountable manager in the authority responsible for the child's care should ensure that an independent return interview is arranged. If there are concerns that the child ran away as a result of circumstances relating to their family or to their placement then this interview would need to take place prior to the child's return. Otherwise this should take place within 72 hours of his/her return from absence.

Where an allegation of physical or sexual abuse is made or becomes evident, child protection procedures must be implemented and contact made immediately with the Safeguarding Investigations Unit and the child protection service at the authority where the child is living if the child is in care and placed in another authority.

If there is any suggestion that the child has been a victim or perpetrator of crime, consideration must be given to the securing evidence by police including by forensic examination. This should also include securing clothing and delaying washing/bathing in relevant cases. It must be remembered that all necessary permissions must be obtained from the child's parents and/or those with Parental Responsibility. It is essential to recognise that the welfare of the child is paramount and careful consideration must be given to the potential effects of such procedures on the child.

Carers, police, social workers and any other persons informed of the child's absence, should be advised of the child's return without delay.

For a child in care, the social worker and line manager should decide in consultation with residential staff/foster carer, the Independent Reviewing Officerand the child, whether they should convene a statutory Looked After Review of the child's Care Plan.

Longer Absences

A meeting will be called to develop a strategy whenever a child is missing for a longer period, and within a maximum of 7 working days. This will be based on the assessment and will depend upon the child's individual circumstances.

This meeting will involve:

  • The accountable manager from the authority responsible for the child's care;
  • The local police inspector (or their nominee);
  • Other relevant staff representatives from the authority where the child is living;
  • The registered manager of the children's home or fostering service for children in care;
  • Social care staff/foster carers.

This meeting will review the action taken up to this point, and satisfy themselves that all possible steps are being taken to locate and return the child.

Children in Care who go Missing during External Activity of a Residential Home

If a child becomes absent outside their area, the carer in charge of the external activity or holiday will:

  • Arrange a search in the area where the child became absent;
  • Notify the local police for that area;
  • Notify the child's parents or guardian (the decision of when to inform parents/those with Parental Responsibility must be made in consultation with a team manager);
  • Notify the child's social worker or the accountable team manager;
  • Notify a senior manager at the home if relevant;
  • Notify the Youth Offending Team if the Child or Young Person is on remand;
  • Notify the emergency duty team if out of hours.

Children who Go Missing Abroad

Any reports of missing children overseas will, in the first instance, be investigated by the relevant agency within the country where they went missing.

If the matter is reported to an agency within Sussex, as with any other missing child the police should be informed. The police may decide to commence their own enquiries and/or investigation.

Should it be necessary for the UK investigators to liaise directly with their overseas counterparts, or if there is a need to visit the country conducting the enquiries is identified, the first approach should be made through the Interpol Bureau in London. Interpol will then advise on the most appropriate approach to be made and through which channels.

Further guidance for the police on this issue in contained within Force policy.

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