The people who disappear: Every year thousands vanish. But only now are the police setting up a limited central list of their names the people who disappear

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The Independent Online
SEAN Durkin vanished on a March morning, walking out of the thatched pub in Dorset he shared with his wife, Glenis. He did not take any personal possessions, nor pack any clothes.

The facts came out later, when Glenis Durkin found three binliners of unopened bills in the attic and her husband's Volvo was discovered last July, its tax disc months out of date, in the long-term car park at Heathrow airport. Bit by bit, Mrs Durkin came to understand the financial pressure that drove her husband to join the army of people who go missing each year.

Now the person who was Sean Durkin - loving husband of 15 years, fond owner of two dogs (one now dead), former caterer, failed publican of the Dove Inn at Burton Bradstock - is perhaps running a bar on a beach in Spain, or in the United States, or even reading this article somewhere in Britain. His wife's situation is more easily established. She is on income support, their pounds 250,000 pub having been repossessed, and living with her parents in the Midlands.

Mr Durkin is one of an estimated 250,000 people who go missing in Britain each year. No one can be sure, because no official records are kept. No breakdown exists of their sex or age, nor does any central government agency exist to find missing people, many of whom are children or mentally ill adults.

This gap will be partially closed next year when the first central police register of missing people is created.

This comes 14 years after the Council of Europe first recommended that all European Community countries set up a national missing persons bureau, five years after the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) made its own recommendation to that effect, and almost five years since the Home Office considered the proposal.

The breakthrough came last Wednesday, when details of the proposed National Missing Persons Bureau were formally approved by Acpo's crime committee. The Home Office-financed operation, to be run by the Metropolitan Police, consists of three officers, a computer and a pounds 90,000 annual budget. It will start work in the New Year.

Police are reluctant to give more information about it. Sources say this is because they never planned to make it public for fear of raising people's hopes. This is justified in the sense that it will be limited - no more than a register of people who are missing, with a planned listing of around 1,600 names.

They will be those considered dangerously at risk because of age or mental state, and people missing more than 28 days, offering a centralised log for all police forces.

The Home Office is unable to explain why it will not list more names, given the disparity with the estimated number missing. Officials admit it will not offer an investigative service.

The British situation provides a shaming contrast with the United States. Had Mr Durkin lived there, he would probably have been found by now. Methods of publicising missing people are highly sophisticated. Their names and faces are printed free on mailshots, computer 'bulletin boards', milk cartons, grocery bags and unsold advertising space. Government-funded agencies, such as the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, offer help.

In Britain the only centres of expertise are provided by voluntary agencies. One is the Salvation Army's Family Tracing Service, which for more than a century has helped to reunite family members. It charges pounds 30 for the service (the remaining cost of hundreds of pounds per investigation comes from charity) and takes on more than 5,000 cases every year.

Methods include using newspaper advertisements and local authority information. It does not, however, act as a straightforward agency to find the missing - 15 years is the average length family members have been out of touch in the cases it accepts. A classic Salvation Army case involves elderly parents wishing to get in touch with a son who emigrated 20 years before.

The only other avenue is provided by the three-year-old Missing Persons Bureau, set up by two sisters in Richmond, Surrey, which has more than 3,000 cases on its books and has located more than 400 people so far. It offers a free service divided between comforting family members - ringing them every day for the first two weeks after their relation goes missing - and publicising the disappeared. Mary Asprey and Janet Newman, the co- founders, deal with 600 calls a week from their tiny office, financed by grants from companies such as Wang and The Body Shop, and the Getty Trust. It depends on publicity rather than investigation.

The British Transport Police provide help putting up posters, the bureau runs a daily one-minute slot on Carlton TV in London, and the Big Issue, the magazine sold by homeless people, gives it a similar service in print. The bureau has a 75 per cent success rate.

People who report others missing may sometimes know why they have disappeared, however. In one case where a young man was publicised as missing in posters and magazines, the Salvation Army said its files revealed the family knew their son had left because they would not accept he was gay. In another case, the Army said a wife publicised her husband's disappearance to shame him because he had left her for another woman. Ms Newman said the Richmond bureau always checked cases very carefully before taking them on.

One case being dealt with by the bureau is a tragic illustration of the need for more resources to be directed at tracing the disappeared. Terri-Anne Girling, 13, of Canning Town, east London, has been missing for more than a week.

Ater running into trouble at school and at home, she was sent to a residential school in Hertfordshire in July; in August she ran away for the first time, and in September for the second. Now, on her third disappearance, she has not been heard of or seen since last week.

'I want my daughter back. I'm worried sick about her,' says Mrs Girling. She believes that if Terri-Anne can be found she will almost certainly be saved from a worse fate than those she has already undergone. If she is, it will probably be thanks to the Missing Persons Bureau. As yet, there is not even a central police register to record the girl's name.

(Photographs omitted)