Hundreds of children who go missing from Thames Valley care homes at risk of sexual exploitation, say NSPCC

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Almost 400 children went missing from care homes across Thames Valley last year – putting them in danger of sexual exploitation.

But Milton Keynes Council figures show just 14 children went missing from its care during 2012/13.

The NSPCC is calling for urgent action to establish why young people go missing, putting themselves at increased risk of harm at the hands of grooming gangs which target vulnerable youngsters for sexual abuse.

This week, figures from Thames Valley Police revealed 369 children went missing from care across the region in the last year.

The freedom of information request did not break down the figures into an amount for Milton Keynes alone.

However, when this newspaper asked the council how many children had gone missing in MK, a spokesman said 14 children and young people in the council’s care went missing for 24 hours or more in 2012/13.

He added that the council is committed to ensuring the safety of all children in its care.

Milton Keynes Local Safeguarding Children Board (MKSCB) has identified ensuring the safety of children who go missing from care as one of its key priorities for next year.

The Board and MK Council have also signed the Children’s Society ‘Runaway’s Charter’.

On Monday (April 29), the council’s corporate parenting panel is due to discuss a report aimed at improving its – and partner Thames Valley Police’s – response when children go missing.

The spokesman added: “When a young person aged under 18 is missing from care, intensive efforts are made to find them.

“When they are found or – more usually – return home, they receive a ‘safe and well’ check from the police followed by a visit from their social worker to help us understand why they were missing and what happened while they were away.

“The social worker works with them and their carers to prevent this happening again and to ensure that they are safe.”

Missing from care figures collated by local authorities differ from those held by police forces in the same area as youngsters are sometimes placed in an area by other local autorities.

If these young people are reported missing to police they will form part of their figures, but not the corresponding local authorities,

Nationally, almost 3,000 children repeatedly went missing from care last year, with 28,000 such incidents involving children who ran away dozens of times. One vanished on 67 occasions.

Head of the NSPCC’s Looked After Children programme, Tom Rahilly, said: “The state needs to be a parent for these children. If any other child went missing their parents would move heaven and earth to find them and to understand why they did it. It should be no different for young people in care.

“Repeatedly going missing should be a big warning sign as this kind of behaviour can put them at serious risk of harm such as grooming or sexual exploitation. But we have to understand why they are doing it.

“Children go missing for many reasons – they’re being bullied, they’ve been put in a home miles from their family and they miss them and their friends, or they just don’t trust staff enough to tell them where they are. Many will have been abused before being placed in care and they need a lot of attention and protection. Going missing for just an hour or two can be long enough for them to come to harm.

“Of course care staff have a difficult job and many local authorities are working hard to deal with this problem, but children tell us they are looking for someone to understand why they go missing and to help set boundaries for them. Children want a little love and to be able to speak to someone who understands the difficulties they face. Otherwise, in the words of one young boy in care, they are ‘dead to the world’.”

The NSPCC is calling for children’s experiences of going missing from care to be put at the heart of professionals’ responses. The society believes too often children say they are punished for going missing while their concerns and fears are not listened to or understood.

It also believes professionals working in residential homes should act like parents, understanding why a child went missing and how their needs can be met.