Hundreds of children are going missing from Britain's care homes and foster families each year, many falling victim to violent and sexual abuse, prostitution and drug addiction.
Some of the most vulnerable children in society, who are supposed to be safely in care, are instead singled out by predatory paedophiles or drug dealers and encouraged to run away repeatedly, according to child welfare campaigners.
Amid growing fears for the fate of missing nine-year-old Shannon Matthews in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, and allegations of widespread abuse at care homes on Jersey, it was revealed that almost 1,000 of the most vulnerable young people in the country went missing from residential and foster care last year, according to new government figures.
Officials from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) admitted that the number "who went missing and remain missing" stood at 160 on 31 March 2007 – an increase of more than 10 per cent on the previous year. And police figures reveal that more than 100 other children who should be in care have been missing for at least four years.
The number that went missing from care increased from 570 in 1997 to 950 last year. More than a third of these were gone for more than a month.
Many local authorities around the country have lost dozens of children in their care, with some regions seeing the highest ever numbers of missing children last year.
The charity Missing People said young people living in residential care are three times more likely to run away than young people living with their families. They are also vulnerable to abduction by their natural families, or being groomed into absconding by predatory criminals. "The issue of missing children spans across those missing from home and care, whether they have decided to run away, or been forced to leave. Missing People is concerned for the safely of all missing children, many of whom are some of the most vulnerable in our society," said a spokesman for the charity.
A DCSF spokesman said: "Most young people who do go missing are found again very quickly – they may have simply gone to the shops without telling anyone or walked away to calm down after an argument, as many children who live with their parents do." He insisted there are "robust systems" in place to ensure children's safety, including protocols with the police setting out arrangements for finding children promptly if they do go missing."
But child-protection experts, pressure groups and MPs called for better care for runaway children and a national database to help to co-ordinate efforts to find those missing.
Despite repeated calls for action over many years, there is still no single source of information that collects data about Britain's missing. Campaigners claim that the official figures mask a bigger problem, as many who go missing are not even reported to police.
Labour MP Helen Southworth, who is leading a parliamentary inquiry into missing young people, accuses police of knowing more about missing cars than they do about missing children. "All figures on children missing from anywhere are estimates because, astonishingly, there is no requirement for data to be recorded or collected nationally," she said.
"Police have a key performance indicator set by the Government on vehicle crime, so they allocate resources and collect information. Children are more important than cars, but the DCSF collects no data on runaway and missing children."
Catherine Meyer, founder of Parents and Abducted Children Together (Pact), said British police are "decades behind" America counterparts in reacting speedily and efficiently to find missing children. "The terrible thing is that since we don't have a centralised database and a centre for missing children, we don't know how many of them are going missing or what is being done to find them," she said. "If a government or a local authority doesn't know exactly how many of its children are going missing, they can say they don't have a problem."
Police chiefs said that many children who go missing become involved in crime, including drugs and prostitution. A national database would help, they admitted. Inspector Ian Carter, spokesman on youth issues at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said: "The situation is that every force deals with this in their own way. There isn't a national database, but I think it would be very helpful if there was one. It would give us the bigger picture. With that type of intelligence we could perhaps become proactive rather than reactive."
At least 100,000 children go missing in the United Kingdom every year, with some estimates putting the total as high as 140,000. Child-protection experts have found that one in every nine children goes missing from home at least once before they are 16.
Local authorities, police and charity workers say the vast majority return safe and well within 72 hours. But as many as a third of them stay with a stranger and more than two-fifths sleep rough. Research by The Children's Society suggests that each year 10,000 children are hurt or harmed while missing. A 2003 survey found that one in nine was sexually assaulted while away from home.
But many fail to return at all. The Police National Missing Persons Bureau, the closest the UK has to a national database, has 1,418 "open cases" of children missing since records began. Of these, some 509 new cases were reported between 2002 and 2005. This increased to 639 in the three years since.
Social services departments are also being stretched by growing problem of young asylum-seekers who vanish from care soon after arriving alone in the UK – amid suspicions they have been taken by human traffickers. The problem prompted Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, to demand action. Jana Sillen, Unicef's UK policy officer, said: "We want the Government to address the issue of children going missing from care. Many of these children are victims of trafficking."
Martin Houghton-Brown, a policy adviser at The Children's Society, said "pull factors" such as a failure to settle in a home or a desire to return to their local area often forced children out of local authority care. "Some young people are targeted for exploitation, usually sexual, by groups of people when they are running away," he said: "The survival strategies that they come up with to support themselves, such as begging, stealing and sexual exploitation, add to the problem."
He said local authority provision for young runaways was "incredibly patchy", and that only 12 per cent of local authorities had organised responses to the needs of young runways. More than two-thirds are not planning a response, he claimed. Two out of 10 police forces are unable to provide information about the level of need in respect of runaway and missing children in their area.
Wes Cuell, NSPCC director of services for children and young people, warned: "There is a danger of the most vulnerable – the ones where there is a pattern of running away, staying away for long period of time, or who have not been found – being lost in the sheer number of cases reported.
"Looked-after children are frequently targeted by people who have evil intentions towards them – people selling drugs will frequently target children they know are being looked after, particularly ones from residential care.
"There are a lot of children who remain missing and never turn up. The system allows the risk that if a child goes missing and is still missing after several months, the chances of some sort of long-term effort made to find them are slim; the resources are just not there. I think some children that have gone missing are dead. A lot of them are living on the streets and being exploited by others."
Nicki Durbin, whose 19-year-old son Luke disappeared after a night out with friends two years ago, has organised the March for the Missing which will start at 32 Great Cumberland Place, London, at 10am on Wednesday.
'Sarah was just another statistic to the social services'
Sarah Benford was 14 when she disappeared from Welford House children's home in Northampton in April 2000. She had been taken into care because her mother was worried about the drug addicts and petty criminals Sarah had begun to associate with in her home town of Kettering.
Eight years on she remains missing, although police believe she is dead. A long-running murder inquiry in 2003 involving dozens of detectives and several arrests came to nothing. But her uncle, Stephen Cross, says the family lives in the hope that she might still be alive.
"We all wait for that knock on the door or that phone call and we always will... The way the whole family thinks is that there is still hope that she is still alive, that's what keeps us going," said the 43-year-old, from Corby, Northamptonshire. Sarah's disappearance has left the close-knit family traumatised and still struggling to come to terms with their loss.
Mr Cross remains haunted by memories of his niece. "Several times I've seen someone that looked like Sarah and jumped out of the car to approach them, only to find they were not her."
He is still angry at how Sarah's disappearance was treated by the authorities. "The police have told us that as far as they are concerned she is dead, but I think all this could have been avoided. They didn't treat it seriously enough at the beginning. Sarah was just another statistic to the social services and the police, and to start with they didn't care. But then with pressure from the family through the media they thought, 'We'd better do something about this because it isn't going to go away'.
"There is a culture of secrecy when kids from care homes go missing. A lot of it is hidden because these are places where children are supposed to be safe. How many cases of the children that go missing from them ever get reported?"