Child protection experts called for a national register of youngsters who go missing from council care to stop them from slipping into a life of violence and sexual abuse. Their demand comes days after an Oxford gang were convicted of abusing under-age girls in care.
There is still no central database logging individual children who go missing each year; instead a number of different systems are used. Yet the scale of the problem is vast. More than 30,000 children in care go missing each year, according to an Independent on Sunday analysis based on police data from the UK Missing Persons Bureau (MPB). This means that one in three children in care go missing at some time, although many return, or are found, within days.
It is part of a national problem in which a total of more than 142,000 children go missing at some point each year. Under 18s are two-thirds of all missing people.
Although tens of thousands of children in care disappear each year, the latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show only 1,510 recorded as missing in 2012 – almost double the 870 recorded in 2002. The difference in the numbers highlights the gulf between official statistics, which relate only to children who have been missing for more than 24 hours, and those recorded by the police, who log all cases.
It was revealed last week that a number of girls abused by a street-grooming gang in Oxford were in council care and had gone missing on scores of occasions. Police and care workers were criticised for catastrophic failings in their obligations to protect girls as young as 11, after seven men were convicted for a series of brutal sex assaults. Three of the victims had been reported missing on 254 occasions and one disappeared from a children's home 126 times in 15 months.
An assessment of the problem by the MPB, obtained by The IoS, said: "Estimates for the number of children missing from care (based on police incident data, or research) suggest that a larger number of children may go missing from care than the figures published by the DfE. Going missing is an indicator of risk and may be indicative of problems with the well-being of the child."
Natasha Finlayson, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, said there were "vast discrepancies" between data collected by the police, local authorities and the DfE. She added: "Only half of England's police forces use a searchable database that can record details of individual children reported missing." Research has suggested that one in four children who run away find themselves in a dangerous situation.
The MPB, the government body charged with compiling data about missing people, has warned that official accounts of the number of children running from care were guilty of "significant under-reporting".
Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children's commissioner for England, who is leading an inquiry into the sexual exploitation of children by gangs, said: "I think a national register, or certainly a way of sharing information across police forces would help.
"Each police force is pretty much an island unto itself, and that gets in the way of information sharing. Children go absent and then they might be anywhere in the country, and so a way of sharing the information or having a national database is certainly something that needs to be looked at very seriously."
The charity Missing People called for "a single missing persons database" three years ago, claiming it would "eliminate operational inefficiencies arising from cases not being transferred to a central agency".
Earlier this year, the Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw said it was "profoundly worrying" that there was so little reliable data on the number, characteristics and trends of children going missing – particularly at a time of heightened concern about vulnerable children being sexually exploited.
However, although the Government has pledged to collect more "robust" data on children who go missing from care, there is no sign of a national database accessible to all organisations responsible for looking after the nation's young people.
Lily Caprani, director of communications at the Children's Society, said: "Many of the young people who go missing – particularly from care – are troubled children. But instead of being seen as vulnerable and in need of support, when they go missing they are all too often treated as a nuisance or troublesome."
Many local councils "don't know which children are going missing – they don't know what they are running from and they don't know what dangers they are running to", she added.
Karen Robinson, senior projects and partnerships manager at Missing People, said: "We would support the use of a single case management system because we can see the benefits that would bring to missing people and their families. However, the huge undertaking that it is, coupled with the fact that nobody can mandate police forces to use the same system, makes me wonder how soon that would come about, and whether we should work towards that while making better use of the resources that we have got."
Next month, the Government will launch a consultation to increase the responsibilities of local councils to do more to look after the children in their care. By the end of this year, only senior officials will be able to decide to place children far away from their home, and only then if it is in the child's best interest. And children's homes will be required to work more closely with police and local authorities to prevent children from going missing.
From April 2014, for the first time, the Government will collect national data for all children missing from care – not just those who are missing for more than 24 hours.
A Home Office spokesman said: "All missing people are recorded on a database held by the national Missing Persons Bureau, but we recognise that improvements can be made in the collection and sharing of information about children who go missing from care. We are working with other government departments and agencies to take this forward."
Case study: 'We want to tell her that she's not in trouble and we will help her'
Justeena Everest's disappearance, aged 14, is all too common among vulnerable teenagers.
Only 5ft1 tall, she was last seen 11 days ago in Catford, south-east London. Police are concerned for her well-being because of the length of time she has not been seen or heard from, when most missing children cases are normally resolved within 24 hours.
Officers said that Justeena was last seen wearing white jeans and a fitted black top and that she was carrying a white bag. She has shoulder-length dark hair tied in a high bun which had previously been died orange.
Justeena also went missing for five days last April, but was later found in south London near to where her sister lives. She attended an academy in the area.
A police spokeswoman said: "Justeena is quite streetwise. She can look after herself. There is always the risk of sexual exploitation – but that hasn't been the case with Justeena, who is just a bit of a rebel.
"We want to tell her that she's not in trouble and we will help her."
Case study: 'We cling on to the hope that he is still alive somewhere'
No one expected Andrew Gosden to run away. The 14-year-old had no obvious problems and was doing well at school. But on 14 September 2007, the Doncaster schoolboy bought a one-way train ticket to London. More than five years later, he remains missing – the last sighting of him a grainy image captured on CCTV footage at King's Cross station later that day. Their family is still in shock, says his father, Kevin.
"Andrew was intelligent. He had a secure middle-class upbringing," Kevin says. "He wasn't uncaring or inconsiderate of others. Nobody had the faintest idea that Andrew was thinking about doing what he did. That is a puzzle that tortures you for ever.
"You can't overestimate the impact of losing a child. It seems even worse when you don't know if you've lost them temporarily or permanently. We cling on to the hope that he is still alive somewhere.
"It goes round and round your head all the time. It's been five years and we're still living in limbo when it comes to what's happened to Andrew. My wife says it's like somebody came up and stuck a knife in your guts and you walk around the whole time with the knife still there and still bleeding, hurting and in pain. And until you have an outcome, the knife isn't ever going to get pulled out and therefore the wound cannot begin to heal. That's a very apt description, frankly."