Significantly fewer children would go missing from care if their wishes and feelings were taken seriously, according to a new campaign from leading children’s rights charity NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service).

Children in the care system who go missing or runaway may be exposed to increased risk of harm or danger, including sexual exploitation or grooming for criminal activity such a drug running on so-called ‘county lines’.

NYAS has found, through interviews with thousands of young people, that breakdowns in communication between young people and care providers are pushing children to go missing and says urgent action is needed to address the issue.

Today, as part of its ‘Missing the Point’ campaign, the charity is taking its findings to Parliament to help inform a special inquiry by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults.  The inquiry is intended to address the record numbers of children who go missing from care when they have been moved ‘out of area’, by exploring the risks faced by them and seeking ways to ensure their safety.

Recent Department for Education figures revealed that, between 2015 and 2018, the number of children going missing from out of area homes has more than doubled. Meanwhile, the number of children living out of area continues to rise, with 64% of all young people living in children’s homes now living out of borough, up from 46% in 2012.

According to Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children, the group  ‘has become increasingly concerned about the dangers facing these ‘farmed out’ children’, who ‘can become ‘sitting ducks’ for those who wish to prey on them.’

NYAS has already submitted detailed written evidence and a set of urgent recommendations to the Parliamentary inquiry and is now urging policy-makers to ensure more runaway children are listened to if they want to avert a deepening crisis.

The charity conducts thousands of return interviews each year for children who go missing from care. Its return interviewers work with local councils to identify ways to prevent further missing incidents.

NYAS statistics show that in the majority of missing from care cases a ‘breakdown in communication’ is the key factor pushing a child to go missing. They also highlight the difference that having access to an independent return interviewer and the chance to voice wishes and feelings can have.

Of the 11,530 care-experienced young people that went missing last year, each went missing an average of 6.1 times. Where an independent NYAS return interview was offered, this number reduced to 2.8 times.

NYAS is also pointing out the cost implications of not having independent return interviews in place. The average cost of a return interview by NYAS is £130.22, but the cost to the police of a medium risk medium term missing person investigation is £2,161. This means significant savings if a return interview successfully reduces the likelihood of a young person going missing again.

Launching the ‘Missing the Point’ campaign in Parliament, NYAS Head of Policy and Research Ben Twomey said:

“The children and young people we work with through our return interviews have told us, repeatedly, that they are not being listened to. This is pushing them to go missing and, in turn, this is placing them at risk of exploitation. Where we have children being coerced into county lines networks the issue is compounded as they are often then treated as criminals rather than listened to and recognised as victims.

“This will only change if councils and carers put the wishes and feelings of children at the heart of what they do, so we’re urging policy makers to help make this happen.

“We’re also asking that no child is sent to live ‘out of area’ without it being in their best interests and only when their wishes and feelings are taken into account.

“The criminalisation of children who have been the victims of exploitation, including coercion from county lines gangs, must stop too and we have to ensure that every care-experienced young person has the right to an independent return interviewer, who should not be employed by the local council.

“It’s clear to NYAS that the success of this inquiry and any new measures introduced as a result of it will rely on listening and responding to the needs of the children who are at risk.

“Ultimately, NYAS wants to make sure that authorities work with children to keep them safe from serious harm. By listening to the wishes and feelings of children and young people today, and taking their views seriously, we can help to safeguard their futures.”

NYAS will now continue to work with Parliament to conduct interviews with care-experienced young people who have been missing, in order to put their experiences and views at the centre of any policy change.

The full content of the charity’s report, submitted to the Parliamentary inquiry into children missing from ‘out of area’ care placements can be found here