Information posters about missing children on the wall at a charity in west London. Police have announced a radical new approach to handling cases of missing children
Senior police admitted they have routinely failed victims of child sexual exploitation as they revealed a new approach to investigating cases of missing people.
Police forces respond to 900 reports of individuals going missing every day (327,000 a year), according to the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo), with 66% of those reports relating to children.
But cases such as the Rochdale child sexual exploitation case – where police and social workers ignored dozens of warnings that young girls were at risk – exposed huge failings in the system which had left the most vulnerable at risk.
In response Chief Constable Pat Geenty, an Acpo spokesman, said a radical new approach was being unveiled to target investigations on those at risk instead of responding to every call-out.
In future the definition of missing people will be changed to “absent” or “missing” after a risk assessment has been carried out by the police call handlers.
Police will not be sent to cases where young people or adults are defined as being “absent” – which often involves officers attending children’s homes when young people are half an hour late for a curfew. Instead care homes or parents will be asked to carry out some checks on where the child is, and the absence will be recorded and monitored to identify patterns of concern which a police missing person co-ordinator can take up with the care home, social services and other agencies involved in safeguarding the young.
Officers will still attend reports of “missing” people – where the absence is out of character or suggests a possible crime.
The changed police approach comes after pilot schemes in Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Staffordshire.
Geenty rejected criticism that this handed sole responsibility for checking on the whereabouts of absent children to care and social workers who had singularly failed to protect young people in cases like Rochdale.
“At the moment we have a system which does not protect them as well as it should do,” said Geenty. “We have had to change it for this reason. The new approach means we will be able to focus resources to protect the children that we need to protect. If the care home is not doing its job then the missing persons co-ordinators will go in and raise the concerns to safeguarding boards.”
Geenty said it was not a matter of cutting budgets, but focusing resources. “This is not about saving money, it will not save any money,” he said.
“The police are often the first agency to take a missing person report and our aim is to ensure we get the best possible response to those most at risk of harm. This means identifying these cases early so that policing resources go where they are most needed. Both police and partners agree on the need to move beyond a ‘one size fits all’ response.”
Dave Tucker, head of policy at the NSPCC, said there were serious concerns about the new approach.
“We are very concerned that the new definition of ‘missing persons’ will put vulnerable children at risk of being groomed and sexually exploited,” he said.
“The length of time a child goes missing is irrelevant because they can fall into the clutches of abusers very quickly.”
Tucker said all professionals including the police must respond to every case of children going missing.
“Children go missing for a variety of reasons: they may be bullied, abused, or are generally unhappy.
“But whatever the reason, this problem must be taken seriously. We expect all professionals including the police to invest the right amount of time and take the necessary action to protect all children as soon as they go missing.”
In Rochdale, Greater Manchester police and social workers did not act after dozens of warning signs about vulnerable young girls going missing from children’s homes.
Nine men were jailed in 2012 for sharing around five girls and using them for sex.
The victims were raped, physically assaulted and forced to have sex with several men in a day, several times a week.
Some agencies had understood that the teenagers were victims of abuse, rather than consenting young adults, and referred potential victims to the Rochdale children’s social care department. But the response of social workers in case files showed they often considered such young people to be “making their own choices” and “engaging in consensual sexual activity”.
The police and prosecutors apologised for failing to bring the case to court when one of the victims went to them for help in August 2008.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission is supervising an investigation into why GMP did not pursue the investigation in 2008.