A report from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, released today, highlights the increasing number of children going missing from care placements. Responding to the call for evidence, Catch22’s Research and Development Officer Sarah Parker, reflects on its findings.
Today’s report makes for uncomfortable reading: there are almost 100,000 children in care in the UK and these children are three times more likely to be reported missing than other children. While figures vary, they are rising, and between 32-40% of children in care are being placed out of their local authority area. These children are significantly more likely to go missing, with as many as one in every five children placed out-of-area being reported missing, and many doing so repeatedly.
So why are these children so much more likely to go missing?
Our young people tell us that a residential care placement is not like a home, and they often feel lost and lonely, as well as angry at moving to a place where they have no connection whatsoever. Being moved away can feel like being punished, but it is not the child’s fault that others failed to protect them, neglected, abused or exploited them.
Catch22 aims to ensure that every young person we work with has good people, a good place and a purpose. Being placed in care away from your home, family and friends jeopardises all three of these things.
Trust takes time to develop and a child will wary of people in a new care placement, especially when they have been repeatedly let down by adults in the past. This is often compounded by the high turn-over of residential care staff, foster carers and social workers which, particularly after moving away from familiar friends and family, can leave children feeling isolated and unwanted.
A good place
Children are often moved around numerous times, sometimes with little to no warning, making them much less likely to settle and lay down roots in an area. Each new school and home will have its own rules and expectations which may differ from what the child is used to, making it easy to transgress unwittingly. If a child does not feel at home where they are, they will seek somewhere else where they can belong, be it a gang, an inappropriate relationship or by running back ‘home’.
Children moved from placement to placement will often find their education is disrupted. If they begin to fall behind, it is easy to feel disheartened and to disengage as their confidence and progress is undermined. This has a long-term impact on schooling.
So what can be done?
Firstly, we must listen to children and act on what we hear. Young people should always be consulted in any decisions regarding their care. Sometimes there are valid reasons why they should be moved away from their home area, but this should be explained fully.
Coercion and threat are not removed just because the child is. When a young person is moved because they are subject to exploitation in one area, moving them to a new area can open up fresh opportunities for the criminal gangs controlling them. They can still be contacted by numerous means on social media and they are sometimes forced to recruit other young people. To assume that relocation will keep them safe is to ignore the industrial scale of exploitation of children.
The placement should be selected because it suits the child’s needs best, not because it suits our needs. Yes, there is a shortage of placements, especially in some parts of the country. Yes, it is labour intensive to involve the child at every stage. But our social care system is about more than just immediate safety concerns: it is about ensuring each child is able to flourish.
“I feel that young people should never be placed out of county. It’s not fair as they are then away from family, friends, and everything they know and are familiar with.”
Out-of-area children are least likely to be offered an independent return home interview, which is a statutory intervention, after they have gone missing. This is an opportunity to discover what needs to change to prevent a repeat incident. If no-one is doing this vital piece of work, the child is likely to repeatedly go missing until their needs are taken seriously.
Information-sharing across local authority and police force boundaries must improve urgently. In today’s report, almost two thirds of local authorities were unable to identify how many children had been placed in care in their own area by other local authorities. Both the placing and the host authorities need to fully comprehend the risks and the vulnerabilities associated with every young person.
Home should mean security, safety, warmth and love. We all have a job to do to ensure that every child feels at home, no matter where they are.