Missing children in care: What is behind rise?

Steve Walker, deputy director of children's services at Leeds City Council.
Steve Walker, deputy director of children's services at Leeds City Council.
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NEW FIGURES on children in care going missing have exposed a fundamental difference in the concern with which different bodies view the recorded rises.

There is universal agreement that the first priority must be finding these children and getting them back to a place of safety.

Nick Smart, West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman.

Nick Smart, West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman.

But the question of what is fuelling the rise in numbers being reported has proved more divisive.

The issue of the pressure placed on police resources as a result is also creating tensions.

West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart said it was time for local authorities to acknowledge there was an issue.

“A lot of the time they don’t have the staffing, the resources or the places to look after these children,” he said. “Because they don’t have the resources, the beds or the means to transport them, they’ll place them back where they were. It’s really frustrating for officers for them to only be returned to where they came from.

If that problem got solved, we would immediately half the number of people going missing from homes.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom, West Yorkshire Police

“We don’t have enough secure accommodation for children and we’re the agency of last resort.”

South Yorkshire Police handled 1,543 cases involving children in care in the year to June 30, while West Yorkshire had almost twice as many at 3,167 cases.

The total for West Yorkshire, the region’s largest force, represented an 80 per cent rise from the 1,766 cases in 2014/15.

And almost three in five of those cases were in the Leeds and Bradford areas.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom.

However, neither of those authorities felt budget issues meant they were unable to effectively protect children and deal with the reasons they went missing.

Michael Jameson, Bradford City Council’s strategic director for children’s service, said: “It is inevitable that austerity in recent budget reductions has some impact on service provision, however within Bradford we have actively re-aligned our resources with partners, to ensure we are effective in identification of children at risk of child sexual exploitation and have effective processes to manage cases of children who go missing.”

Steve Walker, deputy director of children’s services at Leeds City Council, said there was no issue with secure accommodation and it had protected spending on children’s services.

He acknowledged the pressure on West Yorkshire Police’s resources due to missing children, but said he was confident that this “would be the last kind of service [the force] would reduce”.

Statistics show more than two in every five cases in the force area over the past 12 months was reported in Bradford, with a total of 1,303.

Mr Jameson said this was because it had more local authority run children’s homes neighbouring the area and was committed to placing children locally.

And Leeds City Council pointed to the change in attitudes since the Rotherham scandal as one factor in its 47 per cent year-on-year rise in incidents linked to children in care.

Mr Walker said a move by police to log people as ‘missing’ instead of ‘absent’ at an earlier stage was also a factor in the increase.

Asked to what extent the likes of Rotherham were a factor, Barnardo’s said that it had led to increases nationally.

Janice Hawkes, safeguarding lead for Barnardo’s East Region, said: “Our experience is that local safeguarding boards are developing a more co-ordinated response to the issue of children who go missing and that has had an impact on reporting – which may look like an increase in overall numbers going missing.”

But Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom, of West Yorkshire Police, said there was no doubt in his mind that it was a genuine increase in incidents year-on-year, not a recording issue.

“This is something which has significantly changed over the last 12 months and increasingly so,” he said.

The top 15 locations for missing persons calls across West Yorkshire in the 12 weeks to September 18 were all children’s homes. These 15 sites were responsible for 63 per cent of cases involving young people in children’s homes, with up to 89 cases each.

Mr Milsom said: “If that problem got solved, we would immediately half the number of people going missing from homes.”