Police response to missing children 'inconsistent', says HMIC report


Some children are being left unprotected and at risk of serious harm because of "unacceptable inconsistencies" in police investigations into missing children.

The Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) report on the police response to missing and absent children also described runaway teenagers being sworn at by police, blamed for other people getting raped, pushed to the floor and threatened with a Taser.

In the Missing Children: who cares? report, inspector Wendy Williams states: "Our inspection found unacceptable inconsistencies between and within forces, across all aspects of the approach to missing children, whether in respect of assessing risks, investigating or supporting children."

Nearly 67,000 children went missing on one or more occasions in England and Wales between 2014-2015, according to National Crime Agency figures. A total of 128,000 incidents were recorded in relation to these children.

Most children who go missing are found or return of their own accord but someone who runs away from home or care is vulnerable, the report said. By prioritising missing children and targeting resources, police forces will help to address "the cause rather than the symptom" of issues such as child sexual exploitation, child abuse, trafficking and mental ill-health", said Ms Williams.

In the youngsters' quotes included in the report, a 17-year-old girl said she was called "an attention seeking little bitch" by police.

She said: "I've been, like, sworn at. I've been told that it's my fault people are out there getting raped because they (the police) can't stop them."

A 13-year-old girl said: "I've been threatened with a Taser. They said because I was trying to run away, they said 'if you carry on running away, we are gonna Taser you and restrain you' and I was just like 'no, I'm trying to get away from the problem, that's just gonna make the problem worse'."

Ms Williams called for "both operational and cultural changes" as inspectors found the negative attitude of some officers undermined the child's trust in the police.

In a move backed by The Children's Society, Ms Williams said there were "quite substantial" benefits in setting up a national database. "It is only once the information is known that action is taken about it."

Inspectors also said good work was taking place, involving accurate and comprehensive analysis of the potential risks faced by children along with a quick and targeted response.

The HMIC also praised officers who were sympathetic and approachable, noting that dealing with a missing child report is seldom easy and often time-consuming.

West Yorkshire and South Wales were among the forces doing good work, as they had dedicated officers who provided links with control rooms and specialist teams, according to Ms Williams.

The report also looked at information from the HMIC's 2015 police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy force inspections, the findings from 11 child protection inspections and eight re-visits.

A NSPCC spokesman said: "This report confirms the deeply disconcerting reality that, despite several high profile grooming trials in recent years, police forces still do not have a unified approach to dealing with the thousands of children who regularly go missing. When children run away there is a high risk they could be groomed or sexually exploited. And the inconsistent approach by police forces to this problem means many are not getting the protection they need.

"There are often deeply disturbing reasons why children go missing and these should be investigated by officers as opposed to treating the young people as a nuisance". 

Peter Grigg, of The Children's Society, said the report confirms that many of those who go missing are "still being let down by the police".

Chief Constable Mike Veale, of the National Police Chiefs' Council, said the report shows that "more needs to be done" to ensure consistency across all forces.

"We will work closely with chief constables, the Home Office and the College of Policing to address the recommendations so that missing children who are identified as high risk and those who have underlying issues or problems get the support they need from the police.

"Police forces cannot solve these problems alone and we are committed to building a consistent, multi-agency response to missing and vulnerable people."