What should you do if your child goes missing?
A guest blog post from Catch22 – an organisation working across the justice and social care systems, providing training and intervention services for young people and their families, and building resilience within UK communities.
Every year, more than 200,000 reports are made of a child going missing.
The risks when a child goes missing are immense, but this is too often neglected. One in 10 children who completed return-home interviews with Catch22 have been a victim of criminal exploitation. The charity Missing People also reports that one in 7 missing children who return home have been sexually exploited.
This is why Catch22 is calling for a National Exploitation Strategy which encompasses the risks of missing incidents and child criminal exploitation – and maps out a plan to adequately respond to and prevent repeat incidents.
There is a lack of guidance for parents, carers and professionals over what they can do to prevent a child going missing – and what to do in response.
For example, to debunk a common myth, you don’t have to wait 24 hours to consider a child ‘missing’ – you can report the concern as soon as you discover no-one knows where the child is and have concerns they may not be safe.
Catch22 has recently released guidance for parents dealing with such situations:
1. Prevention first
Basic safety plans with your child are essential to preventing missing incidences, and maintaining your own awareness of where your child is. It is perfectly reasonable to ensure you always know where they are planning to go, who they are spending their time out with, and how long they expect to be gone. These boundaries may change with age, but it’s important to make your expectations clear so you know when something is not right.
Encourage your child to share contact numbers of friends and friends’ parents with you, and to store phone numbers of trusted adults in their phone – ideally learning one or two of those numbers off by heart.
Have a conversation about how they might deal with difficult situations in advance of going out. What would they do if they lost their phone? What would they do if they felt uncomfortable? Sometimes a code word or phrase shared between the two of you helps, so if the child feels unsafe, they can call you with the code word and you can pick them up without them feeling judged or embarrassed.
2. The warning signs
Evidence of physical abuse should be an immediate warning sign, but other signs are more subtle. A change in your child’s behaviour or deteriorating relationships with friends or family should always trigger questions, especially if they appear out of nowhere. Consider the following:
Are they normally outgoing, but have become shy?
Have they started dressing or presenting very differently?
Has their peer group changed?
Are they isolating themselves from long-term friends?
Is a previously well-behaved child suddenly ignoring boundaries?
Don’t ignore these signs. Find a good moment to have a conversation, ideally when the mood is light – such as during a car journey or when something positive has just happened.
3. Responding when a missing incident occurs
It can be very scary when you discover your child is not where you thought they were. Don’t panic, and try and keep a clear head, so you can take immediate steps:
Check they’re not in the house, garden or local neighbourhood.
Try to call them or contact them on social media.
Contact their friends, friends' parents and your own family to see if they know where your child is, have any information and/or can help you look. They could help you check the places they often go and the people they are likely to spend time with.
Check if they appear to have taken anything with them with them – like money, clothing or bags.
Make a note of as much detail as you can, including when you last saw them, what they were wearing, their mood, where they normally hang out, and any specific causes for concern like medical conditions.
Remember, you don’t have to wait a certain period of time before you can report your child as missing. Call 101 or report online at www.police.uk/forces. If you believe they may be in immediate danger, call 999. Ask the police for an incident log number and record it for future reference.
While looking for your child, ensure someone is at home in case they return while you’re out of the house. Take your phone and keep in touch.
4. When your child returns
While emotions may be high, try to remain calm when your child does return home. Tell them how happy you are to see them, don’t assume they are OK. Maybe offer food or drink. Let the police know they are home.
It may not be the best time to talk about exactly what happened, but ask them within 24 hours and listen calmly until they’ve finished talking. Take notes and, if you think there is a chance they have been harmed or a crime was committed, inform the police and seek medical help if necessary.
The police may visit for a wellness check, often called a ‘prevention interview’, and often an organisation like Catch22 will conduct a ‘return home interview’. These are to identify whether any harm has occurred, to try to understand why they went missing, help the child feel safe, and to prevent a repeat missing incident from occurring.
As always, it is so important to keep communication open and check in with them to see how they are feeling.
Missing incidents are a key place for intervention
Going missing is often the first key indicator that grooming and exploitation may be taking place, which is why it is vital that parents respond swiftly and appropriately at this point to prevent further harm occurring.
Professionals, agencies and the public underestimate the risks to a child when they go missing – and therefore fail to make early interventions. Parents are often – understandably – so relieved a child has returned home that they fail to question how such incidents occur.
As part of a National Exploitation Strategy, Catch22 is calling for more awareness of the risk factors following missing incidents and how exploitation occurs, as well as regular training for practitioners, parents and carers. Such a strategy should also include updated statutory guidance on missing children and a cohesive approach that brings together other relevant strategies relating to child exploitation.