Children and young people who go missing from home or care can be extremely vulnerable. For 2017/18, the Department for Education reported that 11,530 young people went missing 70,250 times - an average of six episodes per young person. However, estimates of the number of young people who go missing from home are likely to be underestimates of the true figure as official data only includes those who have been reported missing to the police. Research has found that young people who are in care are almost five times more likely to run away or go missing than young people who live at home and around half of the missing incidents were from children's homes, supported accommodation and secure units.
Return home interviews
In light of these figures, a return home interview (RHI), a conversation between a child and a trained professional after a child has come back from a missing incident, can be an important intervention. The DfE's statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from care makes clear that all English local authorities should offer RHIs, and the All Wales Protocol for Missing Children (2011) recommends that Welsh local authorities offer "debriefs" to children who return from a missing incident. RHIs provide the opportunity to uncover information that can help protect children from the risk of going missing again and can also provide intelligence that might enable the provision of better protection or even the disruption of criminal activities. The interview should be carried out within 72 hours of the child returning to their home or care setting.
Revised in 2014 following a number of reports about risks to children in care going missing and becoming victims of child sexual exploitation, the statutory guidance now emphasises that RHIs should be carried out by someone independent, i.e. someone not involved in caring for the child. The revised version also clarified responsibilities in relation to looked-after young people who were placed "out of area" - a particularly vulnerable group at high risk of going missing. The "responsible authority", where the child became a looked-after child, should ensure that when the young person is placed in another area they should continue to have the same access to services and support, including RHIs, as when they were resident within their home area.
Local authorities should develop a runaway and missing from home or care protocol with local police and other partners and clearly outline arrangements for information sharing between agencies when a child goes missing.
In order to be successful, this intervention requires integrated approaches from all agencies tasked with responding to missing children. A report published recently by The Children's Society, The First Step, highlighted that although the importance of RHIs is recognised across the majority of areas, provision is still inconsistent. In some areas as few as around 20 per cent of missing incidents result in RHIs while in others closer to 100 per cent of missing incidents result in RHIs. There also appeared to be differences in who delivers RHIs to young people in different groups - for example, young people in care who had been placed away from their home area were more likely than other groups to be interviewed by a social worker.
Often children and young people go missing due to links to criminal and sexual exploitation, county lines or complex family issues that are impacting their safety and wellbeing. Talking to children, listening to them and creating an environment where they feel able to describe their fears, concerns and their own unique situation is vital to effective safeguarding. Conducting an RHI after a missing episode is therefore of great importance and it is vital that they are conducted in the best way possible to enable safeguarding agencies to protect and help a child.