A parliamentary group called for a two-tier recording system for cases to be abandoned amid concerns it may leave youngsters vulnerable to sexual exploitation or criminal gangs.
The news comes in the wake of the Rotherham child-grooming scandal in which 1,400 children had been sexually abused in the town between 1997 and 2013.
Under guidance introduced in 2013, when forces received a report that a child is missing they can class them as either “missing” or “absent”.
Cases in the missing category receive an active police response, while children classed as absent are considered to be at “no apparent risk”. This normally means a force takes no immediate action but should keep the case under review.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults said its inquiry heard of cases of children classed as absent who had been groomed for sexual exploitation or criminal activity such as drug-running.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, who chaired the inquiry, said: “All the evidence shows that the new absent category is dangerous and should be scrapped. It is not fit for purpose. It was introduced to save police time but has turned out to be a blunt, crude assessment tool that leaves children who are regularly classed as absent in danger of sexual exploitation and of being groomed by criminal gangs. It is scary that exploited young people are falling off the radar and no one knows what is happening to them.”
Latest figures show there were 21,339 absent “incidents” involving 9,780 individual children in 2014/15. The group said the true figure was likely to be higher as 29 forces, out of 37 who have implemented the system, provided data.
In one case outlined to the inquiry, a 15-year-old girl was categorised as absent after her family reported her missing. They were said to have been told not to waste police time because she was residing with an “older boyfriend”.
The girl was reclassified as missing after concerns were raised in relation to child sexual exploitation, trafficking and drugs and she returned home after around four weeks away, according to an account provided to the inquiry.
In another area it was suggested that there had been an increase in the number of missing boys who appeared to have been exploited and the cases “did not originally come to light because the boys had been recorded as absent”.
On a national level more children are categorised as missing than absent, but the study said there were very different ratios in individual forces. Although there may be explanations for the variations, submissions and discussions expressed concerns that the absent category may be seen as a “cost-saving measure” in some areas, the report said.
It also found that the longest period of time a child was recorded as absent for was a “staggering” 20 days and 16 hours.
Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “Everything possible needs to be done to make sure any child who goes missing receives an active response and when they are found, that they are listened to.”