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Missing children and young people at greater risk of criminal and sexual exploitation

Children and young people who go missing are at risk of being sexually exploited and groomed into criminality, including county lines, says new research into the value of Return Home Interviews (RHIs) by the charity Missing People.

The study looked at nearly 600 missing episodes involving more than 200 missing children in three areas in England. Even though the police had categorised them as being at low or medium risk of harm, they found:

  • 1 in 7 (14%) per cent of the children who completed RHIs had been sexually exploited
  • Nearly 1 in 10 (8%) had been a victim of criminal or other forms of exploitation
  • 1 in 5 of the children and young people disclosed information about mental health issues, one in ten was at risk of self-harm and four per cent were at risk of suicide.

Case study

Jessica*, aged 14, went missing overnight. On her return, she told the police she had stayed with a friend and that she was fine.

During her RHI she disclosed that she had spent the night at the home of an adult male and that he had sexually assaulted her.

Jessica was supported in reporting this incident to the police, and details were shared with permission with children’s services and her social worker.

*not the child's real name

The research found that returned missing children and young people gave more detailed information in RHIs than in interviews with the police. That information could then be used to safeguard them and others.

The study shows that information from RHIs can be used for follow up support, to inform wider safeguarding, identify those at greatest risk and lead to fewer going missing in the long term.

The report recommends that RHIs should continue to be offered to all returned missing children, regardless of the level of risk defined by police; findings from RHIs should be effectively shared, recorded and included in safety planning, and RHIs should include the opportunity for follow up support.

Ofsted already takes RHIs into account when inspecting Children’s Services, but researchers advised oversight by the Department of Education and Ofsted, to ensure that every local authority is delivering high-quality RHIs and to enable a better understanding of the national picture of the risks being experienced by missing children.

Josie Allan, Senior Policy and Campaigns Manager at Missing People, said:

“RHIs can identify risks missing children are exposed to, and help put in place support and help where needed. They are crucial in flagging up early those children at risk of serious harms, including sexual and criminal exploitation, mental health issues and problems at school and home. Vital information from RHIs must be shared with the police and other services as part of safeguarding children. If this doesn’t happen we are failing to protect children.”

Rachel Ellis, Research and Policy Analyst at Missing People, said:

“This research provides a much better picture of missing children’s experience before and during the time they are away. Returned missing children must be given the opportunity to talk about why they were missing and what happened while they were missing, and RHIs is an opportunity to safeguard young people at risk of serious harm like exploitation. Thresholds for accessing support services are getting higher, RHIs is one of the only remaining interventions not requiring a threshold to be met, so they should be offered to every returned missing child. Good quality, consistent return interviews in every area are key to making missing children safer.”

A child goes missing every two minutes in the UK: 80,000 every year in 210,000 incidents.