Missing Children Policy



Research by The National Missing Persons Helpline tells us that 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. A school based study back in 2005 showed that 52% of runaways stayed away for one night, 27% stayed away for 2-6 nights, 11% stayed away for 1- 4 weeks and 10% stayed away for longer than 4 weeks.

Each year in Sussex about two thirds of the 5000 or so people reported missing to the Police are children who go missing. The peak age for children to go missing is between the ages of 13-16 with girls approximately twice as likely as 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 and Families 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 and Families 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.

Missing Person

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 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. 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 consult the relevant parts of the Sussex Child Protection and Safeguarding Procedures.


A person not at the place where they are expected to be.

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 Office 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 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 and Families are required to notify the Border and Immigration Agency, the 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 and Families staff and Police will discuss associated risks of the child absenting themselves. 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 eg. 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 absent themselves without permission.

Once a child has gone missing, both Children and Families and Police staff should avoid dismissing the potential significance of repeated periods of absconding. Often such children are immediately labelled as 'the problem' and insufficient consideration is given to why they are persistently absenting themselves. 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

For some children the concerns will be increased because they fall within groups who may be targeted by adults who pose a risk, for example unaccompanied asylum-seeking children or other children who may be trafficked either from abroad or within the UK for the purpose of sexual or other forms of exploitation. Children in the care system are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, with evidence to suggest that some abusers will target residential units specifically. Responses to a child going missing from a care placement should be agreed and incorporated within the child's care plan.


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 Children and Families/foster carers on their child's 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.


If the running away/going missing of a child or young person is causing specific concern, eg, 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 – eg, representatives from the Youth Offending Team, Drugs Action Team, the CAMHS service etc


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 and Families 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 and Families staff 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 Children and Families staff/foster carers, the priority must be ensuring immediate safety of the child by finding them and returning them to Children and Families/foster carers, providing this does not place any child at greater risk of significant harm.


When reporting to the Police, the person taking the report will need the following information:

  • A description of the child and their clothing;
  • Details of when the child was last seen and with whom;
  • A recent photograph (if available);
  • Family addresses;
  • Known associates and addresses frequented;
  • Personal details of the child;
  • Any previous history of absconding / absenteeism and circumstances of where found
  • The names and addresses of the child’s GP and dentist
  • The circumstances under which the child is absent
  • Any factors which increase the risk to the child
  • Placement address (where appropriate)
  • Contact details of carer (where appropriate)
  • Where a Looked After Child, the name of staff member who has completed a search of their home for the child (NB Police reserve the right to conduct further searches)


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 Children and Families staff 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.


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 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 Children and Families 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 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.

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 police child protection team 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 Officer and the child, whether they should convene a statutory review of the child’s care plan.


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
  • Children and Families 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.


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


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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