Media campaigns for missing people may be heartrending, but those on the run have their rights, too, says Anna Moore
When Patricia Newton, 37, went missing from her Dinnington home in October 1991, it seemed a straightforward case. The family fish 'n' chip shop had fallen into debt and Patricia had become depressed. She vanished after receiving a £7,000 VAT bill. Alan, her husband of 20 years, urged every newspaper in South Yorkshire to help find her.

So, with police approval, Patricia's picture made the front of the Dinnington Guardian. Alongside, Alan pleaded: "If you don't want to come home, just phone. At least we'll know you're safe and well." The search then spread, via regional newspapers, farther north: "Husband's desperate search for missing wife has moved to Doncaster after she was spotted in the town," announced the Doncaster Star on 6 November. "We repeat our appeal for anyone who may have spotted her to get in touch."

The publicity paid off and Patricia's husband found her on 12 November. Tragically, there was no happy reunion: Patricia was hiding in a women's refuge. Clutching a carving knife, he broke in and chased her to the attic. Patricia locked herself in, but he smashed down the door, dragging her out by the hair. In front of screaming women and children, he stabbed his wife to death.

"Alan fooled everyone," recalls Patricia's sister, Beryl Simpson. "He'd always seemed happy-go-lucky. Then, when Patricia left, he seemed devastated. In our wildest dreams, we didn't think he was capable of that." At the hostel, Patricia had written about how she lived in fear of Alan, who, she said, rarely allowed her out, trapping her in what everyone thought was a happy home. Beryl Simpson now can't bear to watch public searches for "missing people". "It's terrible the way they splash them all over the place," she says. "Patricia didn't want to be found. She'd have got in touch when she was ready."

The case of missing nine-year-old Daniel Handley, which has just been linked to a body unearthed in a shallow grave, shows that public searches are often wholly legitimate. But according to the Children's Society, most young people run away to escape violence in the home. For adults, domestic violence, debt, depression, infidelity and family rows are among the most common reasons for disappearance. In all such cases, putting their faces on a missing poster may be, at best, unnecessary, at worst, dangerous.

Lieutenant Colonel Colin Fairclough, head of the Salvation Army's Family Tracing Service (FTS), which is a century old this year, swears by low- key, tried-and-tested methods of private detection. "Distraught relatives who've been left behind can be very persuasive, but they'll only tell one side of the story," warns Fairclough, who has 12 years of experience behind him. A Lancashire man, once a preacher and prayer writer who travelled the world, he is now based in King's Cross and is registered with the Association of British Investigators.

By scouring records and asking questions, Fairclough and his team of 20 work on 5,000 new cases a year with an 80 per cent success rate. When traced, people are discreetly asked if they wish to be found. Most do, but some do not.

This low-key technique contrasts with the National Missing Persons Helpline, run from Richmond, west London, by sisters Janet Newman and Mary Asprey. Launched two years ago in a blaze of publicity, the charity estimates there are an astonishing 250,000 missing people in Britain. It now has about 6,000 on its books, and claims a 64 per cent success rate, partly achieved through publicising cases on radio, in the Big Issue magazine, on Carlton TV's Missing File and LWT's Missing.

Boasting 9 million viewers, Missing follows the Crimewatch format, except that Helpline volunteers, not the police, answer calls. Each case is reconstructed against an eerie soundtrack, and viewers ring in with sightings. "Of course, some people don't want to be found," says Helpline press officer Sophie Woodforde, "so we only publicise the `vulnerables' - children, the mentally ill, the elderly - and always with police approval."

Though local police may be glad of their services, Scotland Yard's one- year-old Missing Persons Bureau, the first police register of all missing vulnerables, is more cautious. Executive officer Jacqui Henson explains: "We'll talk to the helpline on a friendly basis, but we can't give them information. Missing asked us for cases but we couldn't supply any. It's not an offence to go missing. On a personal note, if I decided to take off, I'd be horrified to see my picture in the Big Issue. Even vulnerables have rights. Just because you're 70 doesn't mean you can't say, `He's been beating me for 50 years - I'm off!' "

Fairclough shares these reservations and cites cases where the helpline clearly made mistakes. "One man approached both ourselves and the helpline. He was hysterical because his wife had left him. He'd no idea why. Her picture was widely publicised, but I managed to make contact with her privately and she said that he'd been beating her up for years. She was in hiding and was horrified by the publicity."

On another occasion, the helpline appealed through the Pink Paper for a missing son. As it turned out, the young man had left home because his parents couldn't accept he was gay. He still phoned regularly, but did not wish to be "reunited" with them. Starting again in another city, he hadn't yet come out to anyone else, and was distraught to see his story and sexuality revealed in print.

National Women's Aid (NWA), which was housing Patricia Newton at the time of her death, is also concerned. Recently, another woman taking refuge with the organisation was featured in Missing and traced. In this case, which involves allegations of abuse that are still unresolved, the woman had left her home in the Channel Islands with two of her children, breaking a care order. The tearful father expressed concern for their safety while suggesting that his wife was unstable.

"We were horrified," says NWA worker Lucy Irvine. "The programme was full of one-sided, unchallenged statements. How can we guarantee safe refuge with programmes like that on air? From that point on, the missing person has no choice. They are no longer free to step out of the door in case they're recognised." This woman's case has been taken up by the Jersey MP Imogen Nicholls, who had known Patricia Newton. She describes the reconstruction as "grossly biased and completely misleading".

Ironically, high-profile, high-cost, high-publicity methods could also be the least effective. At the end of the last series, Missing announced that in two years it had taken 27,000 calls, appealed on 108 cases and found 25 people. Watching from home, Fairclough consulted his records, and found in that week, the FTS had traced 67 people.

Fairclough also questions the 250,000 figure quoted on every Missing programme and each Helpline appeal. "It depends how you define `missing'. To me, it suggests someone who has disappeared mysteriously, and may be a danger to themselves or others. If a family has broken down or someone has made a private decision to lose touch, then they hardly constitute `missing' people." Scotland Yard will shortly be able to reveal how many missing vulnerables were reported to the police last year. It expects the figure to be about 2,500, with most cleared up quickly. "If there were 250,000 people missing, you'd be tripping over them in the street," says Henson. "We don't know where they get that figure from."

"Colin Fairclough has made all these allegations before," sighs Mary Asprey, of Helpline. "It comes down to the fact that he's jealous of all our publicity and computers. We've even offered him some software." But Fairclough insists that is not the point: he is simply trying to show that tracing people is a sensitive business - for even his methods can cause more harm than good.

"Two parents once told us a heartbreaking story about their daughter who'd left home and lost touch," he says. "We traced the young lady and she wrote to us saying that her parents had sexually abused her throughout her childhood. She was rebuilding her life, making slow progress, then out of the blue came our letter saying that her parents were looking for her. She said we'd destroyed three years of counselling."

Fairclough pauses, and shakes his head as he remembers. "We informed the parents that their daughter wished to maintain her privacy and they may well know why. We never heard from them again. And there lies the problem. You just never know."

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