Hundreds of children have disappeared from council care homes without a trace during the past 10 years, a damning report into the plight of child "runaways" has found.
A survey of 172 local authorities in England and Wales who care for 28,000 children found between 376 and 389 young people were missing and councils did not know where they were. The true figure is probably higher because six authorities said they did not keep records of missing children.
Information disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act showed children at 41 authorities had gone missing without a trace. One said it had lost 110 children since 2000. The children are mainly from authorities in London and South-east England. Victoria Hull, a national development worker at the Care Leavers' Association, which carried out the research, said it was worrying that hundreds of vulnerable young people seemed to be disappearing into thin air.
"That some authorities could not answer our questions because they did not keep track of the data is shocking. If those local authorities can't even keep track of where their vulnerable young people are, how can they be relied upon to ensure their safety?"
The researchers said some children may have escaped from care after being trafficked into the UK to work in the sex industry. More than a quarter were asylum-seekers who were being looked after by local authorities.
West Sussex recorded the most children and young people still missing. Of the 110 untraced, 73 are still aged under 18. Most were asylum-seekers who flew into Gatwick Airport. An earlier government report found missing children were mainly girls from Nigeria, Liberia, Sierra Leone and China. It is thought they are taken to Europe and forced into prostitution.
Case study: 'We all wait for that knock on the door or that phone call'
Sarah Benford was 14 when she vanished from Welford House children's home in Northampton in April 2000. She was taken into care when her mother became worried about the drug addicts and criminals she had begun to associate with at home in Kettering. She is still missing, although police believe she is dead. A murder inquiry led to several arrests in 2003 but came to nothing. Sarah's uncle, Stephen Cross, 43, of Corby, said the family lived in hope that she might still be alive. "We all wait for that knock on the door or that phone call, and we always will," he said. "The family thinks there is still hope – that's what keeps us going."
He is still angry at how Sarah's disappearance was treated by the authorities. "[The police] didn't treat it seriously enough at the beginning," he said. "Sarah was just another statistic to social services and the police, and to start with they didn't care. 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."
Mr Cross is haunted by memories of his niece. He added: "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."