Dedication of police officers to help missing and absent children undermined by unacceptable inconsistencies across forces, leaving children at risk

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary has today published a report on the police response to missing and absent children.

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Missing children: who cares? – The police response to missing and absent children

Responding to reports of missing children is seldom easy, and frequently complicated and time-consuming. HMIC was therefore pleased to find examples of committed police officers and staff providing an excellent, empathetic and effective response to reports of a missing child. However, this was undermined by some inspection findings of sufficient concern that they require immediate improvement.

HM Inspector of Constabulary Wendy Williams, said:

“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. This was echoed in our interviews with children, many of whom described how their experiences of the police varied, depending in some cases on which officers, sometimes within the same force, had contact with them.

“There must be both operational and cultural changes in the police service if children and young people, particularly those whose safety or wellbeing is threatened to such extent that they decide to run away from care or home, are to have confidence in the police as a source of help and protection.
“We make a series of recommendations for the Home Office, National Police Chiefs Council, chief constables and the College of Policing, aimed at ensuring the necessary improvements are made – and quickly.”

Most forces do not have a good understanding of the nature of the problem of missing and absent children in their area, making it difficult for them to ensure an appropriate response. Unreliable data at force and national levels means it is impossible to know how many children in England go missing, or what risks they face, and that the police cannot properly protect these children from potential abuse.

HMIC found that children categorised as ‘absent’ received far less attention from the police, often not being looked for where circumstances may have escalated, or having any enquiries made as to why they left home. HMIC found examples of missing children being incorrectly categorised as ‘absent’, meaning that little action was taken to find and safeguard these potentially vulnerable children. There could be various reasons why this was happening, however on some occasions it was suspected that it was being used as a shortcut to managing demand.

Going missing can be a precursor to various aspects of significant harm, such as abuse, exposure to criminal activity or mental ill-health, which can blight a child’s life well into their adulthood. Police forces need to understand the social and financial imperatives of being proactive in preventing incidents of missing children, both as a means of reducing future demands on their services, and of preventing exploitation and abuse in future.

As part of this inspection, HMIC commissioned the University of Bedfordshire to carry out a research project on how children view the police’s role in safeguarding. The report – “Children’s voices research project” is also available on both the HMIC, and University of Bedfordshire websites.

Get the report

Missing children: who cares? – The police response to missing and absent children


  1. HMIC is an independent inspectorate, inspecting policing in the public interest, and assesses and reports on the efficiency and effectiveness of police forces to tackle crime and terrorism, improve criminal justice and raise confidence. HMIC inspects all 43 police forces in England and Wales together with other major policing and law enforcement bodies.
  2. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) inspected the police response to missing and absent children as part of its summer 2015 PEEL (police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy) effectiveness inspection of all 43 police forces in England and Wales. As part of this work, we also assessed forces’ preparedness to tackle child sexual exploitation, because children who are missing are at greater risk of becoming of victim of this kind of offending (with those missing from local authority care particularly vulnerable).
  3. This report sets out what we found, triangulated by evidence from:
    • other child protection inspections carried out by HMIC in 2015/16; and
    • research commissioned from the University of Bedfordshire to explore the experiences of 45 children who had come into contact with the police because of concerns about their safety or well being.
  4. When the police receive a report that a child is missing, they can choose to categorise him or her using the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) definitions of ‘missing’ or ‘absent’. This determines the level and urgency of the response:
    • an absent categorisation denotes that the child is not considered to be at immediate risk of harm. This normally means that the force takes no immediate action, but should keep the case under review; while
    • cases in the ‘missing’ category receive an active police response, with the level of this response determined by a further assessment of their being a low, medium or high risk of immediate harm.

    However, not all forces use the NPCC definition of ‘missing’ and ‘absent’. Instead some forces have created their own definitions. Additionally, some forces do not use the ‘absent’ category for children, and record all incidents as ‘missing’.

  5. For further information, HMIC’s press office can be contacted during office hours from 8:30am – 5:00pm Monday – Friday on 020 3513 0600.
  6. HMIC’s out-of-hours press office line for urgent media enquiries is 07836 217 729