Is the local authority care system in England failing children who run away and what happens to those who go missing? The BBC has uncovered evidence of young people disappearing off the radar for weeks, months and, in some cases, years.
“I couldn’t count how many times I went missing,” says Elsie (not her real name), 24, from Yorkshire, who was sexually exploited while missing from care.
“At one point, because I was such high risk, there were helicopters from the police looking for me because they were that worried about what was going on when I was running away.”
Latest government statistics show councils looked after just over 78,000 children in the year ending March 2019.
While it is common for children to go missing from their placements, the vast majority will be found within 48 hours.
‘Out of place’
But Elsie’s story highlights the risks of harm and danger they can be exposed to, especially if they’re gone for longer periods.
Between the ages of 11 and 18, she lived in a number of children’s homes “from the top to the bottom of the country”, with the longest placement lasting just 11 months.
Struggling to feel at home, she ran away a lot.
At first, she says, it was “boredom” and wanting to “get away”.
“I just felt so out of place, it wasn’t a home, I didn’t feel at home, it was just somewhere that I was placed because they needed to basically put me somewhere.”
Eventually, she says she met a “group of older males” who began to “pressure” her into running away.
“They knew where I lived at the time and they were threatening to come and get me.”
‘Saved my life’
Elsie stopped running away from care when she was able to access specialised and tailored support.
“Sometimes I felt like nobody cared. For me, the turning point was having someone who cared and listened, and believed me,” she says.
“I’ve had a lot of social workers over the years and that did contribute to the deterioration of my behaviour, but in the whole, social services saved my life.”
Now studying at university, Elsie is training to be a social worker herself.
The BBC has looked into the most serious cases of missing episodes among children in care.
Four in 10 councils (56 out of 137 who responded or 41%) recently had a looked-after child missing from their care for more than a fortnight, according to figures provided to the BBC in Freedom of Information requests.
Most councils (81, or 59% of the sample) said they did not have any children missing for this length of time.
Warwickshire County Council reported having a child missing for nearly three-and-a-half years. In Shropshire, an asylum-seeking child was reported missing for nearly three years, and Surrey County Council reported a child missing for two years and eight months.
One council gave us details on a child who was missing for 462 days.
“This relates to a young person who travelled to the UK as an unaccompanied asylum-seeking child in the back of a lorry on his own without family,” a council spokesman said.
“The young person was found in a service area on a main road and placed in an emergency placement where he stayed for one night before leaving after saying he wanted to be in Middlesbrough and had been in touch with someone there believed to be of Kurdish origin.
“He was found 24 hours later and placed in emergency accommodation in Hartlepool overnight while a foster placement was found the next day intended to be a permanent placement in West Yorkshire.
“He was placed there the following day but, after one night in the placement, said he was going for a walk at 10:00, reported missing at 12:30, and has not been seen since.”
- At least 176 children were reported missing from the care of English councils for 16 days or more at the time of the BBC’s information request
- 22 councils reported having at least one child missing for over six months and of these, 13 said they’d had a child missing for over a year
- 137 out of 149 upper-tier councils responded
Charities say many of those who go missing for long periods are likely to be young asylum-seekers and child victims of human trafficking, some of whom may end up forced to work in places like cannabis farms and nail bars.
Anti-trafficking and exploitation organisation ECPAT UK described the figures given to the BBC as “alarming”.
‘Fearful of detention’
“Child victims of trafficking are likely to go missing from care for a range of reasons, including control of traffickers, not being properly identified as trafficking victims, breakdown of placements, lack of trust in adults to keep them safe,” said chief executive Patricia Durr.
“Unaccompanied children transitioning to adulthood are so fearful of detention and forced removal that this is a push factor for them in going missing,” she added.
Lockdown has made it harder to support looked-after children, according to England’s Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield.
She has previously criticised temporary coronavirus laws which she says relaxed duties on social workers visits.
Ms Longfield is urging the government not to delay a promised care review.
“We want to hold the government to their manifesto promise of a thorough review of children’s social care to not only reform the whole system but tackle the reasons children are able to go missing from local authority care and how we reduce these numbers,” she said.
Councils say they work as quickly as possible to find missing children and address the issues that caused them to disappear.
Judith Blake, children’s service spokesperson for the Local Government Association said: “Councils are facing unprecedented demands within their children’s services departments and want to work with government to ensure every child gets the best start in life and the care they deserve.”
The government says responsibilities for missing children remain unchanged during the pandemic and it is committed to undertaking a care review at the “earliest opportunity”.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The Care Review will be bold, broad and independently led, taking a fundamental look across children’s social care, with the aim of better supporting, protecting and improving the outcomes of vulnerable children and young people.”