Figures analysed by The Yorkshire Post, compiled through a series of Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, reveal that 7,344 children have been reported missing in Yorkshire since March 2016.
It has also emerged that one in five are children in care, with looked after children accounting for almost half of all those missing in some areas.
Tackling the issues around why children go missing is a key priority for the region, police and councils have said, as concerns are raised over what children are exposed to while they are unaccounted for.
And, as West Yorkshire’s crime commissioner warns that public sector cuts “add to the challenge”, there are calls for all authorities to work together to tackle the root cause.
“Missing children are not only at risk of ‘accidental’ harm but also of being exploited,” said Mark Burns-Williamson.
“Over a quarter of people who go missing do so more than once, these are often the individuals with the most complex needs. The need to safeguard them is imperative.”
The NSPCC said that in many cases, children go missing for reasons such as bullying, abuse or being unhappy at home, and feeling like their only option is to run away.
“It is startlingly to hear that so many of our children are going missing especially as this puts them at greater risk of physical abuse, grooming and sexual exploitation,” a spokesman said.
“It is vital that we have regular conversations with our children helping them find solutions to the problems in their lives.”
The investigation, examining the number of children reported missing in the 17 months to August of this year, looked at the ages of those involved and whether they were being looked after by local authorities at the time of their disappearance.
It found that dozens of babies, including 21 under the age of 1, had been flagged by authorities in the region as being missing, usually in the care of a parent.
And it revealed that in some areas like Calderdale, almost half of all missing children investigations were for those in care, while in other areas such as Leeds, children in care were missing or absent on average seven times a year.
Authorities must work together to prevent children from going missing, one of the region’s crime commissioners has said, as he warns of the strain placed on policing resources.
Each missing person incident takes on average 20 hours to resolve, West Yorkshire’s Mark Burns-Williamson has said, with 60 per cent of all reports received in the year to June involving children.
Great inroads are being made, he said, with partners now working together to share information and best practice among care homes, safeguarding boards and communities. But what’s needed, he said, is a greater understanding of the root causes.
“The police are put under great pressure to trace missing people every time a call is made and awareness-raising is crucial to let individuals know there is support out there,” he said. “Tackling this challenge requires the police, communities and local partners to work together to ensure we are safeguarding our most vulnerable.
“However, cuts to public services have added to the challenge in that the police and local authorities have limited resources available to prevent children from going missing which is why working with all partners is essential. We need to identify how we can work better together to tackle the root causes which are often complex, with the aim of preventing people from going missing in the first place.”
Humberside Police said it is “constantly” working to reduce the number of children who go missing, and to reduce the number who disappear repeatedly. Det Supt Darren Minton, head of safeguarding central governance at West Yorkshire Police, said the force had run a campaign around children running away. “Every instance of a child being reported missing from home is clearly of huge concern,” he said. “We continue to investigate how we can prevent children from going missing repeatedly, and safeguard children against perpetrators who may cause them harm.”
Across Yorkshire, analysis found, the greatest number of children reported missing were in areas with the greatest population density.
Leeds, the region’s biggest city, although only providing figures for the first year, had the greatest number for that time. The city council has said it takes any report of a child going missing “very seriously” and has robust arrangements in place to find them.
A rise in reports, a spokesman added, was not unexpected when considered alongside improvements in knowledge, understanding and the reporting process.
In Bradford, where 1,343 children were reported as missing or absent, the council stressed this was in line with many other local authorities when population figures – in particular those of under-16s – were taken into account.
The district also had the greatest number of children’s homes, the authority said, adding that its policies were being promoted across West Yorkshire as good practice. And in Calderdale, an area where 48 per cent of all incidents were with regards to children in care, the council has said it has a strong focus on early intervention and reporting.
“Keeping Calderdale’s children and young people safe and well is of utmost importance to us, and we take the issue of missing children extremely seriously,” said Coun Megan Swift, cabinet member for children and young people’s services. “A third of the missing children in care are children who have been placed in Calderdale’s care from other areas, to which the children are trying to return.
“We are totally committed to tackling this and are working with other councils to create more rigorous joint procedures.”
A Government spokesperson said: “It is vital that our most vulnerable children are protected from harm. That is why we have strengthened regulations on children’s homes and placed a duty on local authorities to tell us about all incidences of children going missing from care, even those lasting less than 24 hours, and encourage local authorities to share that information locally.
“Many residential settings do important work to provide placements and support for children with complex histories of going missing. In 2015, we introduced Quality Standards to improve the care in homes and we are taking action by reviewing our cross-Government strategy on Missing Children and Adults.”