Rehman Chishti MP is the Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham and Chair of the APPG on Missing Children and Adults, as well as a former Member of the Home Affairs Select Committee (2017-2019).
As we look to build back better following Covid-19, our focus must shift and widen to cover issues that have until now not been properly addressed.
Before the pandemic, a staggering 180,000 people went missing from their families and friends every year – many of them repeatedly.
With the pandemic increasing the number of people dealing with issues around mental health, facing serious financial challenges, or suffering from domestic abuse, the scale of the issue is likely to increase still further in the coming months and years.
I was personally absolutely astounded by this figure when I was preparing to ask the Secretary of State for Health a Question on the Government’s missing people and mental health strategy following the case of one of my constituents going missing in August 2020.
The national definition of a missing person is “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or risk of harm to themselves or another”. As the Chair of the APPG on Missing People I welcomed the Government’s announcements in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward measures on mental health, the commitment to ensure children have the best possible start in life, and the promise to do more to address sexual exploitation and violence against women and girls.
However, I believe these measures must only be the first step on the road to a joined-up strategy to tackle the issue of missing people, which affects all 650 constituencies from around the United Kingdom.
Challenge 1: Many people go missing more than once
For too many people, going missing is not a one-time occurrence: the 180,000 people who are reported missing every year actually make up more than 350,000 separate missing incidents. This means that thousands of children and adults are going missing more than once, some many more times.
People going missing repeatedly means that we are not effectively safeguarding them. Going missing is a warning sign that something is wrong in a person’s life. They may be being exploited, escaping harm, experiencing mental health crisis, or facing other significant risks. Some will be seriously harmed while away.
Every time someone goes missing there is an opportunity for intervention. We should be providing help to address underlying issues and opportunities for escalated support when necessary.
Challenge 2: Looked after children are more at risk
One group is at risk of going missing more than almost any other. One in ten children looked after in the care system will go missing, compared to one in 200 generally. In 2019-20 over 12,000 looked after children were reported missing. They are also more likely to go missing repeatedly, on average each child will go missing more than six times.
Evidence suggests that looked after children can be at increased risk of many of the harms known to be linked with going missing.
We must do better for these young people. Providing safe and supportive homes, with appropriate care in place to meet the needs of their individual circumstances. All agencies involved – carers, residential homes, social workers, police officers, schools and many others – should be focussed on building positive relationships and preventing harm.
Challenge 3: Adults with mental health issues are disproportionately likely to go missing
Amongst adults, too, there are certain factors that make it far more likely that someone will go missing: up to 80 per cent of missing adults will be experiencing severe mental health issues when they go missing. Yet the issue is often overlooked in national and local policies and action plans regarding mental health.
With the Covid-19 pandemic having a further severe negative impact on the nation’s mental health, with increased isolation and decreased access to support, this is likely to become a still more urgent problem in the coming months and years.
Challenge 4: Missing children are at risk of sexual and criminal exploitation
Children going missing can be a serious warning sign that they are being groomed, or exploited, including by criminal groups. With thousands of children across the UK being victimised in this way, this is a problem that needs to be recognised and faced urgently.
We now know that a shocking number of children are being exploited criminally by criminal groups to deliver drugs across the country in ‘County Lines’. With many children less visible to services dedicated to identifying and helping them during the Covid-19 pandemic, these problems have not diminished.
Instead, exploitation has often only temporarily shifted from travel (county lines) to taking place locally or over the internet.
Challenge 5: Long-term missing people
The last challenge comes from perhaps the most heart-rending fact of all: not all missing people come back. The data shows that over 5,000 people are currently considered to be ‘long-term missing’ in the UK, meaning they have been missing for over a year. Over 5,000 families are left in limbo, waiting to hear what may have happened to their missing loved one.
This is an unimaginable situation that no one would wish to be left in. Every missing episode should be a priority for all of us, from day one and for as long as it takes until they are found.
What can be done to tackle these challenges? There are three distinct opportunities for change that the Government, I believe, should look into at the earliest possible opportunity.
Recommendation 1: New Missing Children and Adults Strategy
First and foremost, what is needed is an overarching plan across Government, spanning across departments, to address the issue of missing children and adults.
The reasons why people go missing are complex, the harm that they may experience while away is varied and the support that people will need is unique to their individual circumstances. Missing people truly is an intersecting issue and requires a multi-agency response.
There are excellent examples of multi-agency working across the country, but the Government must take a strong national lead. In 2011 the Home Office published the ‘Missing Children and Adults Strategy’. Ten years later this needs to be reviewed, updated and strengthened with Cross-Government commitments to prioritising the response to missing within all the relevant agencies.
Recommendation 2: Out of area placements/care review
The second issue that must be looked at is children’s care, particularly with regards to out of area placements. With the Independent Review on Children’s Social Care having just been launched, we must not let this opportunity pass to seriously address the issue of provision and sufficiency of placements where children need them, as well as to review how decisions are made about children being placed out of area.
With 12,000 looked after children currently going missing every year, tackling this issue would go a long way towards reducing the number of children going missing and all the harm that follows from that.
Recommendation 3: The issue of missing people being built into mental health priorities
The renewed focus on mental health announced in the Queen’s Speech is very welcome, especially as I have previously strongly campaigned on this issue, including by introducing two private members’ bills to Parliament in the past. I believe that this focus must include detailed consideration of the issue of missing people.
Currently there is almost no guidance or legislation that outlines the support that should be in place for people who go missing in mental health crisis, or for those who go missing directly from mental health care settings.
By building consideration of missing people into mental health policies and practice we would be supporting early intervention in cases where going missing is an early sign of worsening mental health; right through to preventing deaths, amongst those missing people who have gone missing with the intention of taking their own life.
The issue of children and adults going missing deeply affects hundreds of thousands of people a year, across every constituency, every local authority, every city and town in the country: it devastates families, confounds communities, and causes serious harm to those who go missing themselves. The Government must do everything it can to stem this tragic phenomenon.