Mothers of the Disappeared

ACPO announced this week that plans are afoot to change the way Police deal with missing persons. Story from BBC

For those of us in the police, missing people take up a huge amount of time and resources. We don’t actually mind looking for people – we are rather good at finding them- but the public should know how these things are dealt with and why so much time is wasted. Nothing I am writing here is not publicly available and I am going to add an officers perspective so hopefully you will leave here with slightly more knowledge than when you arrived.

When a person goes missing they are ‘risk assessed’ by a police supervisor (me) into Low/Medium/High risk.
Low means that we may not actively look for them as there are no concerns for their welfare.
Medium means we have some concerns – maybe some info they are self harmers, or they are under 18 and deemed ‘at risk’.
High– well these are taken from a lowly Sgt and a high ranking officer will take control and throw everything at finding that person. This is usually an imminent threat to life.

I have tried to list below the types of people reported missing, and how we react to them.
I will whizz through what happens with these for the non police readers :

1. Children living at home with family:
This is when children go out to play , or have gone to a friends house and haven’t come back on time. Usually children get an automatic ‘medium’ risk due to their age. These are not usually really young- 12 to 16 is the norm. Most are found nearby or come back when police are filling in the HUGE form for a missing person.

2. Toddlers who wander off from an adult :
– straight to high risk this one- all units attend, dog section, silver command the lot. Everyone wants to find the child quickly. Good news is they are usually found within a few minutes close by.

3. Adults who threaten self harm
– mixed bag this: mostly they are regular callers with mental health issues. Usually medium risk unless it an imminent threat. Lots of attention seeking is a common theme. You get people who have had a falling out with their partners and say they are going to kill themselves, but have actually gone to cool off or to the pub. We take these very seriously though – sometimes they do mean it and need to be found fast. These take up considerable staff hours even for the attention seekers.

4. Adults who inexplicably go missing
– these can be a worry too, however it’s often that 19-25 year old (usually female sorry) has not returned from a night out. I’ve never had one yet who suffered foul play and I will leave it to you to imagine what they were doing overnight.
Also though this includes normal people who simply ‘disappear’ and have never done so before. These are the ones to worry about. Occasionally good people breakdown and go off to somewhere scenic to end it all, or maybe just to think. Many turn high risk if they’ve left notes saying goodbye etc.

5. Mental health inpatients
– mental health wards have to allow sectioned people some rights, one of which I must have missed that says you can leave a secure unit to smoke. They then wander off and staff cannot get hands on with them – and call police. This has been going on for eons and nothing ever gets done about it.

6. Hospital patients
– these are not secure wards, and sometimes people leave in their gowns with a canula stuck in their veins. Or need urgent treatment. Rather cynically I have found most of these to be criminals who absolutely will not listen to anyone in authority be it doctors or police. They can go high risk but are usually found at home drinking where they left off. There is the odd confused patient who wanders off, but generally found close by.

7. Elderly people
– same as with little kids- high risk , and mostly they are dementia sufferers or confused by illness. We pull out all the stops to find them, and usually do. Sadly they sometimes come to harm due to their vulnerable condition and I have known a handful die as a result.

8. Children in local authority care
– this is the reason for the blog post. Every authority has to provide care for children who are at risk or vulnerable. You will find a home in every town. For some reason known only to the council and to god, they house young offenders with vulnerable victims of abuse in the same homes ( not the victims actual abuser) what happens here is astonishing. All these children have curfews, and most of them don’t come back by the required time. The home call the police and report them missing.

What’s wrong with that you say? It’s the job of the police to find missing children!

– No, children are the responsibility of their parents, or if in care it’s the local authority staff who have that role to play. If your child (aged 12-16) didn’t come home on time what would you do ? A parent would ring them up, call their friends, go to their mates houses, visit the local park etc. all the things a good concerned parent should do. If you still can’t find them you call the police.

So what happens within the homes? I have many years experience in attending care homes and I like the staff , but the first thing that happens is they get the child’s file out. They will tell you the child is vulnerable and the reason why police have to look for them. Fair enough. The next bit will be familiar to all police officers

‘So what have you done to find them ?’ I ask
We’ve rung their mobile, but they told me to F-off’
‘Ok, what else have you done, have you been to look for them?’
‘Cant do that, there needs to be 2 of us here minimum as we can’t be alone with the children as they make allegations all the time’
( I have a fair bit of sympathy with that one)
-there are always just 2 staff on, they seem to run on minimum strength all the time.

Children’s homes also have something I call ‘the one way lock’.
This is the front door of the home – it’s secure, with a buzzer entry system. Even police can’t enter without staff coming to let them in.

‘So how did he get out ?’
‘Oh we can’t stop them, not allowed to touch them’
‘So they just walk out?’
‘Yes, but we call you guys straight away’
That’s ok then.

It’s worth now pointing out that under the current system (change pending) all these kids are medium risk straight away, due to age and being vulnerable by nature. That means we have to actively look for them. The massive form has to be filled in, and at least one officer will spend sometimes a whole 10 hour shift looking for them, and checking addresses etc.
sometimes they return same night, often it takes 2 or 3 days. Multiply all the police hours per shift doing research. We will often have to have officers on other areas check addresses too, so they join the hunt.

And what happens quite often is that the child themselves will dial 999 from wherever they’ve been to get a lift home when they need fed or to sleep. That is what ACPO mean by us being a taxi service. The home often call telling us where the child is, and again say they can’t collect them as they can’t leave the care home.

Under the new rules certain missing people won’t be investigated unless there’s a risk involved. I disagree with NSPCC when they say it will mean these kids will be left open to grooming and exploitation – if they had better care in the first place that would minimise the risk and just maybe they wouldn’t go missing in the first place.

If children escaped from police custody it would be a national scandal – how it hasn’t been up to now mother only knows.

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