Missing Children and Young People
A guide to Missing Children and Young People
A foster carer’s guide to missing children and young people
Introduction to Missing Children and Young People
The definition of a missing looked-after child is one who is not at their placement or a place they are expected to be and their whereabouts are unknown.
Missing children, particularly young people are often referred to as having ‘absconded’ or as an ‘absconder’.
However, here at FosterWiki, we prefer the word ‘Missing’ as it’s more accurate and supports the seriousness of the situation, and the safeguarding risk and does not use a term which indicates the child is to blame.
A child or young person will not always be ‘running away’ either, they are often ‘running to’ something, most often family or friends. Sometimes worse in that, it could be gangs, traffickers, or people who are exploiting and grooming them.
Going missing is generally a symptom of deeper underlying issues generated by trauma, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), attachment issues and mental health issues.
Missing incidents were reported for 1 in 10 looked-after children (10,880 children) in 2021 and there were 71,470 missing incidents. The vast majority (90%) of missing incidents lasted for 2 days or less.
Two-thirds of missing incidents were from ‘secure units, children’s homes and semi-independent living arrangements’, however, this is likely because more older children are placed in these settings and older children are more likely to go missing.
1 in 5 missing incidents were from foster placements and 1 in 10 were looked after children who were living independently.
Away without authorisation incidents were reported for 2% of looked-after children and young people (2,600 children).
What the National Minimum Standards say
5.2 Foster carers know and implement what the fostering service and the responsible authority’s policy is in relation to children going missing.
5.3 Foster carers are aware of, and do not exceed, the measures they can take to prevent a child leaving without permission under current legislation and Government guidance.
5.4 Children who are absent from the foster home without consent, but whose whereabouts are known or thought to be known by carers or staff, are protected in line with the fostering service’s written procedure.
5.5 The fostering service and foster carers take appropriate action to find children who are missing, including working alongside the police where appropriate.
5.6 If a child is absent from the fostering home and their whereabouts are not known (i.e. the child is missing), the fostering service’s procedures are compatible with the local Runaway and Missing from Home and Care (RMFHC) protocols and procedures applicable to the area where each foster home is located.
5.7 Where children placed out of authority go missing, the manager of the fostering service follows the local RMFHC protocol. They also comply with and make foster carers aware of, any other processes required by the responsible authority, specified in the individual child’s care plan and in the RMFHC protocol covering the authority responsible for the child’s care. [Statutory Guidance on children who run away and go
missing from home and care – 3.5(27)].
5.8 Children are helped to understand the dangers and risks of leaving the foster home without permission and are made aware of where they can access help if they consider running away.
5.9 Where a child goes missing and there is concern for their welfare, or at the request of a child who has been missing, the fostering service arranges a meeting in private between the child and the responsible authority to consider the reasons for their going missing. The fostering service considers with the responsible authority and foster carer what action should be taken to prevent the child going missing in future. Any concerns arising about the foster carer or the placement are addressed, as far as is possible, in conjunction with the responsible authority.
5.10 Written records kept by the fostering service where a child goes missing detail action taken by foster carers, the circumstances of the child’s return, any reasons given by the child for running away from the foster home and any action taken in the light of those reasons. This information is shared with the responsible authority and, where appropriate, the child’s parents.
What do you do when a child or young person goes missing?
- Ring your team, if you can’t get hold of them ring the duty social worker and report the child missing.
- If children or young people go missing after work hours you will ring your fostering service’s Out of Hours (OOH) service and report it to them. They will direct you on what to do, but it’s normal to ring the police and report it.
- Ring the police on 101 and report the child or young person missing, on rare occasions, it may be appropriate to dial 999.
What is a MISPER
You will often hear a child or young person who has gone missing as a ‘MISPER’ which stands for Missing Person. You may also hear of the MISPER form. This is the police form you fill in, they may do it over the phone or they may come over and do it with you.
If you have a child who is at imminent risk of going missing familiarise yourself with this form and ask for guidance from your team in advance as to how you should fill out certain sections, such as risk assessments and other sections you are unsure of.
A MISPER form will look like this, this is the first page to give you an idea of the format. Also, check out our FosterWiki page on what is MISPER.
Here is an example of the full form: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/390683/response/949951/attach/3/Blank Compact Booklet.pdf
Away from placement without authorisation
This is when you know where the child or young person is but they haven’t come home or are refusing to come home. They may be at a friend’s house, or with parents or extended family, you have the address and you know they are there.
This is often dealt with in a different way but work with the team around you as to how they wish to address this, it is also dependent on things like age, what section the child is placed in care under, court orders, care and placement plans.
You will still notify services, and if it’s outside of office hours (which it usually is) then ring your local authority or agency Out Of Hours service (OOH) and report it.
Depending on the instructions you have you may then also report to the police, the police will do a welfare check on the address where the looked-after child is and make a risk assessment as to whether they can be left there or need to be bought home.
What will the Police ask you for?
- A description including what the child was wearing, their height and hair colour, and what shoes or bag they had.
- A recent photo.
- Details of friends, relatives and places they may visit.
- Whether they have any medical condition, or might harm themselves.
- Where they were last seen or when they were last in contact.
- They will ask where you have searched for them.
The MISPER form above will give you a full and detailed list of the questions you will be asked.
In all circumstances where a child is reported missing from home, the Police search your home, this is protocol, it can feel intrusive as you know they aren’t at home and the police often are also aware of this, however, it’s the police’s job to do so and is just normal procedure.
What happens next?
If you have rung around and searched where you think the young person might be with no success the police will then take over. They will ring or visit family and friends, and they will ring you to keep you updated if there is any new information, and you do the same.
If the police find the child they will generally bring them home, or they may ask you to pick them up.
Sometimes the child will contact you to be collected or come home of their own accord. It is not usual for young person to disable their phone until they are ready to come home. The police will not ping the phone immediately, the child usually needs to be missing for a longer period of time before they trace the phone.
You can find out the police missing persons procedure here:
Foster carer’s comments
Because mum was often hungover she would ask J to stay home and clean the house which meant she was missing school.
While J was not happy at being told she needed to come and live with us, mum had agreed to a Section 20 for J to be accommodated while she got help, she seemed to be happy enough for the first few days. J liked the new clothes she got and her own room which she asked who else could use and was surprised when we told her nobody, it was her room.
J mentioned that often mum had people staying over and she would get kicked out of her room for the night.
It was a total surprise when she went to school on Wednesday and didn’t come home. I didn’t feel too concerned at first but when I couldn’t reach her on her mobile and had a call from school to say she hadn’t been in for the last lesson I became very anxious, I called my SSW and she suggested giving J until 6 pm just in case her battery was flat and she had been held up with friends.
By 6 pm I was beside myself with worry.
I tried calling the CSW and SSW again and was told to “report her missing”. She had returned to her Mum’s as she was missing her when she was found the police bought her home.”
As you can see it can be a very stressful time when a child goes missing, but it is much easier to cope with if you know the protocol and what to do.
Welcome the child or young person back into the home with no judgment or anger, and usually, discussions around why the child was missing can wait till the next day.
Your reaction is key, greet them with a smile, maybe offer a mug of hot chocolate or cup of tea, and something to eat, whatever their preference is.
Be open to them wanting to talk calmly in the morning when they have slept and avoid joining a child in any escalation as a result of being forced back home, maybe a place that they don’t yet see as home, to people they may not yet trust are genuine and care about them, into routines that are alien to them.
These things take time and patience.
Return to placement interview
Children must be offered an independent return to placement interview. Note that this is something the child has to agree to. This has to be completed within 72 hours of the child agreeing to be interviewed. If the child returns and is angry it is not beneficial to have this interview until they have had some rest, food or time to reflect.
This is when it is our professional role to advocate for the child and support their decision to be interviewed or not to be interviewed.
Information, Help and Support
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