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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


G.3: Police investigations when children go missing

14. Investigating missing persons reports is the responsibility of the police, with appropriate input from those responsible for the care of children if it appears that a child may need to be safeguarded.

15. When a missing person (adult or child) is found, the police carry out a prevention interview (also known as a safe and well check or a welfare check) to check the person is no longer missing and is safe and well. In the case of missing children, an RHI should be offered (in England, after each missing incident; in Wales, after three missing incidents), as discussed below. For children assessed as being at risk of going missing again, key actions to be taken are recorded in a ‘trigger plan’ to be implemented in response to any future missing incident.[1]

16. The police record every instance of a child or adult being reported missing. If a child (or vulnerable adult) requires additional help, police procedures and joint protocols should specify the circumstances when a referral should be made to children’s social care or adult services.[2] The data captured by children’s social care will therefore generally be a subset of the total missing children reports recorded by the police.

17. Research undertaken in 2019 – A Safer Return, which analysed information provided in RHIs by over 200 children following almost 600 missing incidents, with a focus on incidents judged to be low or medium risk by the police – found that 14 percent of this group of children were either current victims of sexual exploitation or had been victims in the past.[3] A much higher proportion, 43 percent, had one or more of five indicators that the study considered a ‘red flag’ for sexual exploitation, including gang association, sexually exploited friends and associating with older friends or an older boyfriend or girlfriend.[4]

18. A robust police response to an episode of a child going missing is essential, to improve the prospects of apprehending the perpetrators of any sexual exploitation that occurred during the episode and ensure better protection for the child.

19. In half of the case study areas the police response to episodes of children going missing was assessed as ‘poor’, ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.

19.1. In 2016, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) concluded the Metropolitan Police Service (which covers Tower Hamlets) provided a “poor” response to children who regularly went missing and that in some cases there was a lack of understanding of the link between children going missing and the increased risk of sexual exploitation.[5]

19.2. In 2018 and 2019, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) found that the management of the risks to missing children by Merseyside Police (which covers St Helens) was “not always appropriate” and that activity to find missing children was too often desk-based.[6]

19.3. In March 2020, HMICFRS recommended that Durham Constabulary “immediately improves practice in cases of children who go missing from home”. HMICFRS identified limited activity to locate children overnight, children’s cases wrongly assessed as ‘low’ or ‘no apparent’ risk, a failure to refer cases to children’s social care, lost opportunities to understand why children went missing and failures to transfer cases onto a computer system.[7]

20. By October 2018, HMICFRS found in an inspection review that the use of trigger plans had “improved significantly” in Tower Hamlets but further work was required to ensure consistent practice. It concluded that children in Tower Hamlets, including vulnerable looked after children, continued to be inappropriately categorised as absent rather than missing and as a result there were missed opportunities to gather valuable information on risk to these children.[8]

21. There were some signs of improvement in Merseyside. By May 2019, HMICFRS found that Merseyside Police had put in place “a range of initiatives to raise awareness of the vulnerability of children reported missing, and it [had] significantly reduced the number of those assessed as being at no apparent risk”.[9]

22. There does not appear to have been such improvement in Durham yet. By May 2020, an internal audit noted that there remained significant areas for improvement in relation to the management of missing children investigations, in particular where children went missing frequently, were in the care of the local authority or went missing overnight.[10]


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