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Child exploitation

Reflecting on a decade of Return Home Interviews

Close-up of hands unlocking and opening a door using a key.

Catch22 delivers services in the UK which support children and young people at risk of exploitation. This support involves working with children, young people, their families and guardians, and with safeguarding professionals. As part of these services, Catch22 responds to incidences of children going missing – Catch22 does this because missing incidences are so often a warning sign of potential exploitation or grooming.

On every occasion a child goes missing, statutory guidance in England states that the child should be offered an independent Return Home Interview (RHI) when they return home. This must be conducted by someone who is not involved in directly caring for the child or young person at the time of the missing incident – it is at this point when Catch22 often steps in, initially by conducting one of these RHIs.

Catch22 recently released its Missing and Emotional Wellbeing report, sharing insight gained from the hundreds of Return Home Interviews (RHIs) conducted each year by Catch22.

Catch22 caseworker Sammi Roberts has been conducting Return Home Interviews for 10 years. Initially joining a 3-month pilot, and later joining Catch22, Sammi’s first encounter with Return Home Interviews was in 2011. Today, Sammi shares her insight from the last decade – from the increase in missing incidences as a result of too many young people’s declining mental health, to the changes she’s seen through the Covid-19 pandemic.

The introduction of Return Home Interviews

When we started, a police officer would bring me printouts of all the referrals in the morning, following reports of children or young people who had been reported missing – and returned home. Everything was paper-based back then, and I’d just get the basic information from the child and return it to the police – there were just a few basic questions back then:

  • What happened?
  • Where did you go?
  • Who were you with?

I’d be asked to report back, with just a couple of sentences, and little was done with that information at the time.

But after three months, the pilot was extended. We were given a better set-up, we got secure email access, and insight from the RHIs were passed on to police officers and to the social care teams. We started working closely with the police, joining them for morning briefings and updating them on any young people of concern. RHIs have developed so much since then.

The need to be independent

It quickly became clear while talking to these young people, that they were much more comfortable talking to me than to the police or to social care. I’m not an authority figure to them and that’s something I always emphasise now too. I talk to them like I talk to my own child or anyone else – I tell them “I’m not here to judge you or to tell you what to do. That’s not my job. My only concern is your safety.”

Sometimes it’s hard to get a child to talk to me but I never accept the initial “F*** off” I might get. I am very persistent. So, I will always show up, I’ll tell them “I just want to see your face, know you are home and know that you are OK.” Even if they are hiding in their bedroom, and whether I’ve seen them or not, to me it is important that they also see my face. It’s important that they get to know me.

I always give them my number to ring at the end of the RHI too and I say, “If you need any advice, if you need anyone to talk to, just give me a ring.” And you know, often that’s exactly what they do.

The importance of trust

Some young people go missing repeatedly and it can be really hard to get them to open up about what is going on. I just go in and talk to them about anything, and with that, they start to get comfortable with me and start telling me what is going on. That is the key I think – building trust, so then you can start getting them the help they need.

I remember once this young girl went missing and in the end, the police found her at her boyfriend’s house – in his bed. She was really young so this was already a concern because he was 17 at the time. When I went out to see the girl, she disclosed that she hadn’t consented to have sex with him. Police were informed and I waited with the family because they were all very distressed.

I phoned the family back the next day and I also took the girl to the sexual health clinic. She found it really difficult having to tell her story again and again to different professionals – police, social care, the clinic – so I could be a bit of a buffer to prevent her from having to go through it all repeatedly. I think it helped just having a familiar friendly face there.

The impact of COVID-19

COVID-19 has definitely had an impact on missing children. To start with, there was a real drop in referral numbers. We had to find different ways of working, which was difficult. We were ringing children up to speak to them and that could be very difficult, especially with new children we hadn’t built a rapport with yet. If you already had a relationship with them, it was better, but it was really hard with those you had never met in person.

Some children have struggled to get back into the school routine since the lockdowns and they’ve really suffered from anxiety. We’re seeing a lot more mental health concerns than usual. I think it’s been especially hard for the children who moved from primary to secondary school, and it’s been such a disruptive time for them.”

Since COVID, I’ve done a lot more referrals for volunteer mentors. Sometimes they don’t want CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), and they don’t want to be on a waiting list. Children and young people just want someone to talk to, not necessarily someone professional, but just someone to be there for them.

Ten years on…

I think the 72-hour target in statutory guidance is good and we can complete the majority of RHIs in that time frame, but in my team, we just keep going if we can’t meet that. We’ll keep trying for 14 days and, I continue even beyond then if I just have a bad feeling about something. I always go with my gut. I make follow up appointments even if we have sent back the paperwork if I feel something is wrong.

That’s the advantage of having done the job for so long. I think I really know what I’m doing. I just go into a kind of professional autopilot where experience kicks in. You can make a rapid assessment of the situation, your instinct tells you what approach the child needs. You get really good at reading body language, and you know what kind of chit-chat is needed to make that child feel comfortable.

I like it when we’re busy. And I feel better under pressure  – which is just as well really. I normally start around 7:00 in the morning and make it a priority to get out and see the children.

The thing I love about the job is that no two days are the same. Even with repeat mispers  – children who go missing on multiple occasions  – it’s always a different story. I know I can help them and I always wanted to work either with the Police or with children, so this is just perfect for me!