When councils do carry out the return home interviews, few are making the best use of the data, risking a "tick-box exercise".
Just 80 per cent of children are offered an interview, despite it being a statutory requirement for local authorities to do so, according to the research published by The Children's Society in its report First Steps.
In 30 per cent of cases, children decline the offer, but experts believe more can be done to engage with them and improve the rate.
The picture is mixed across the country, with one in five episodes resulting in an interview in some local authority areas, while in others the rate was almost 100 per cent.
The research, commissioned by the Norfolk Police and Crime Commissioner and funded by the Home Office, found many councils were unable to provide data on the number of children going missing in their area, how many return home interviews were offered and carried out, or what help was offered to children as a result of the interviews.
Just 24 local authorities in England could provide data for the uptake of return home interviews for children who go missing from home - 21 on looked-after children who go missing from placements within their home area and only 14 offered data on looked-after children missing from placements outside their home area.
In addition, one in five local authorities are not recording information from interviews in any consistent way. Of the 87 local authorities that answered the survey, 69 said they recorded full notes or specific information from a return home interview.
The data also suggests that information sharing from return home interviews between children's services and police is not consistent across the country.
Challenges with data on looked-after children placed "out of area" are also highlighted. There is confusion over who is responsible for doing the interview, a worry about the quality of the information collected and how that information is shared.
Sam Royston, policy and research director at The Children's Society, said return home interviews are effective in that they reassure young people that they are cared for, and also provide an opportunity to professionals to gain insight into their needs.
They can therefore be "crucial" to keeping children safe, said Royston, adding that it is "deeply concerning" that many areas are not seizing the opportunity.
Royston said: "There needs to be clear good practice guidance across the country on what should be recorded, shared and followed up.
"Without this the return home interview risks becoming little more than a box-ticking exercise that ultimately fails young people."
One young person who benefited from the interview process described a positive experience, telling the charity that her interviewer "listened to me and made me feel comfortable".
She added: "Without them, no one would have realised I needed any help. My life is a million times better."
Catherine Hankinson, the missing people lead for the National Police Chief's Council, said that "new and innovative ways" could be found to "communicate the importance to young people of this process and what it means to their safety".
Assistant chief constable Hankison, an officer with West Yorkshire Police, added: "It requires a concerted effort, working in close partnership with key agencies and local authorities, ensuring that children are offered interviews in all cases and that they are also encouraged to take up the offer."