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3.4.1 Children Missing from Care Procedure

These procedures state how social workers and staff/carers in residential and foster care should act to prevent children from running away and placing themselves at risk. They also detail the actions that must be taken if a child is missing. 

These procedures should be read in conjunction with the London Child Protection Procedures 2016, Children Missing from Care, Home and Education Procedure.

Please also see Southwark SCB Multi-Agency Protocol for children missing from home and care.


DfE: Statutory Guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care (2014)

Tri.x Briefing No. 107: Revised Statutory Guidance on Children Who Run Away or Go Missing from Home or Care


Safeguarding Foreign National Children Who Go Missing Procedure

Missing Children – Reporting to Senior Managers Procedure


The chapter was amended in September 2016 to include a new section on Section 4, Risk Assessment together with updated reporting to senior managers / elected members process.(See Section 13, Reporting to Elected Members).


  1. Definitions
  2. Preventative Steps
  3. Notification of Absence
  4. Risk Assessment
  5. Missing from Care Strategy Meeting
  6. Informing the Media
  7. Unauthorised Absence of a Child
  8. Recording
  9. Planning for the Child’s Return
  10. The Child’s Return
  11. Missing During a Holiday or External Activity
  12. Longer Term Missing Persons
  13. Reporting to Elected Members

    Appendix 1: Categories of Absence

    Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children

    Appendix 3: Young People Missing From Care Process Flowchart

1. Definitions

In practice, where a child goes missing, there are three categories of absence:

Unauthorised Absence

Some children absent themselves for a short period and then return: often their whereabouts are known. They are not considered at risk and usually they are testing boundaries. 

Sometimes children stay out longer than agreed either on purpose or unwittingly. This kind of boundary testing activity is well within the range of normal teenage behaviour and does not come within the definition of “missing” for the purposes of this procedure. These children should be regarded as children “whose absence is unauthorised” - see Section 7, Unauthorised Absence of a Child.

When abduction is suspected, this procedure will not apply and the situation should be dealt with and referred to the Police as a criminal matter.

In some cases a young person may go missing for short periods repeatedly on a regular basis. This may be an indicator that the young person is at risk through criminal behaviour or sexual exploitation and it is advisable that these absences are investigated and the risk indicator grid used to assess risk.


A child is missing where his or her location is unknown and/or the reason for his or her absence is unknown and there is cause for concern because of the child’s vulnerability or there is a potential danger to the public.


This category would apply to a child for whom the police have the power to arrest e.g. where bail conditions have been breached. Children in this category may be actively avoiding contact with the authorities. It should be recognised that children who fit this criteria may also be vulnerable and at risk. 

Note that the police adopted a definition of ‘missing’ with effect from 2013 - see ACPO Interim Guidance on the Management, Recording and Investigation of Missing Persons (2013), which should be read in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers ACPO (2010) Guidance on the Management, Recording and Investigation of Missing Persons.

Missing children/young people will be classified by the police as either ‘missing’ or ‘absent’ after a risk assessment has been carried out by police call handlers.

The new NPCC definition of a missing person is:

Missing - ‘Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be the subject of crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another’.

Absent - ‘A person not at a place where they are expected or required to be’.

The `absent’ category should comprise cases in which children/young people are not presently where they are supposed to be but there is no apparent risk and they are not believed to be immediately at risk of harm.

Police will not be sent to cases where children/young people are defined as being ‘absent’. Instead the onus will be on care providers to take steps to locate the child/young person, with monitoring by the police and escalation to ‘missing’ if there is a change to the circumstances that has increased the level of risk. It is expected that all reasonable steps should be taken by care providers to locate the child/young person prior to making a report to the police. Where they remain absent, and the care provider feels that they may be at risk of harm, then a report should be made to the police.

Police will attend reports of ‘missing’ children/young people.

Deciding Which Category

If a child informs the carer where s/he is going before leaving home and if his/her whereabouts are known and if the child does not return home at the stated time, a telephone call should be made by the carer to ascertain whether the child is at the given address. If the child is there and s/he states that s/he is not returning to the home, this may not be desirable but it is not a matter for the police unless the carer has reasonable cause to believe the child would otherwise be likely to suffer significant harm. If the carer is in doubt they should contact the on-call duty manager or the emergency duty social work team for guidance.

Any child who is 12 years old or younger should automatically be considered at higher risk and classed as missing or absconded. They must be reported to the police immediately.

For children who are 13 years old or above, there should be a consideration as to the category of absence and a risk assessment should be completed. The Appendix 1: Categories of Absence grid must be completed to support a professional judgement about the absence. The grid provides a framework for differentiating between a ‘missing episode’ and ‘unauthorised absence’ and how this decision to should be regularly reviewed until either the child is located or it is decided that the child is missing, and a missing person’s report is made. A risk assessment must also be completed - see Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children.

In completing a risk assessment, staff/carers will apply the above definitions and, in addition, take the following into consideration:

  • Guidance already incorporated in the child’s Care Plan and/or Placement Plan;
  • The age of the child;
  • The legal status of the child;
  • The child’s state of mind at time of absence;
  • Previous behaviour patterns;
  • Time of day/night;
  • History of self-harm;
  • History of absence;
  • Physical/learning difficulties;
  • Group behaviour;
  • Whether the child is perceived as running to someone or running from a situation;
  • Any information available on the likely whereabouts of the child;
  • Any other particular circumstances at time of incident;
  • History of inappropriate sexual exploitation.

In responding to and managing an individual child’s absence from care, professionals from all agencies, including police, schools and CYPS, should beware of dismissing the potential significance of multiple absconding episodes by a young offender. Often such children are immediately labelled as “the problem” and insufficient consideration is given to considering why they are persistently absenting themselves.

The Police Missing Persons’ Unit is available for consultation with professionals who have concerns about a child who may be missing, and can support professionals in making a determination as to whether a child is missing or absent without authorisation. This can be done prior to making a formal missing person’s report. Professionals who wish to consult about a child can do so by contacting the Southwark Police Missing Persons’ Unit. If a professional is clear that a child is missing, there is no need to have an initial consultation, and a missing person’s report should be filed in the first instance.

2. Preventative Steps

All children who are Looked After by the local authority will receive an age appropriate information guide, provided by their social worker which clearly outlines what action will be taken if he/she goes absent without permission. This will include:

  • What procedure will be followed if they go missing;
  • That there is an expectation they will speak to a police officer on their return;
  • That they will be offered the opportunity to speak to an independent person on return;
  • That a recent photograph is to be held within their records;
  • That the contact details of their friends and family will be included on their records;
  • That in order to assist in the event that they may go missing, a descriptive form will be completed in as much detail as possible and held in records;
  • That they can self refer (or be helped to refer) to an independent advocate at any time;
  • That there are free help lines which they can call at any time.

For each looked after child, staff and/or carers must always know where a young person is, who they are with and what time they are expected to return. Prior to each accommodation arrangement for a looked after child, Children’s Social Care must consider all potential risks to the child including an assessment of the potential for them to go missing or run away. The child and his/her parent/carer should be involved in the assessment and planning process. The discussion should include the following, and be recorded in the Care Plan:

  1. Details of any previous incidents;
  2. The level of supervision/support offered to the child;
  3. The parents’ advice on what action they feel should be taken if the child goes missing;
  4. The provisional level of risk presented if the child goes missing based on current information;
  5. Details of frequented addresses e.g. of friends, relatives that may have been used in the past;
  6. Adults involved where the child may be at risk;
  7. The whereabouts of a good quality colour photograph & information about where it is digitally stored;
  8. Any prohibited contacts;
  9. The completion of personal description form (see Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children);
  10. Any known “triggers” which may lead to the child going missing;
  11. Any other significant information that may be relevant to the child/young person.

All of the above information should be reviewed after any period that the child goes missing and following any known change in circumstances.

Each statutory Looked After Review should check whether this information needs to be revised. Up to date information should be kept in the case file to facilitate the locating of a child should they go missing.

Where there is a significant risk of the child going missing, the child’s social worker should complete a “Police Missing Persons Enquiry Form” for a child at/prior to the placement. The details on this form will contain key information that will help the Police to undertake an assessment of risk if the child goes missing. 

The child’s social worker in conjunction with the carer should update the form after each missing episode or any other significant change. A photograph of the child should also be obtained for use in any Missing Person’s Enquiry.

If there is a significant risk of the child going missing, the child’s social worker will discuss with the parent and carer this possibility and the possible responses outlined in this procedure. Where there is a significant risk of the child going missing, the child’s Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) must review, at each LAC review, the strategy in place to prevent the child from going missing and the plans that will be implemented should the child go missing.

3. Notification of Absence

When a child goes missing without permission, every effort should be made to locate the child and encourage him or her to return as quickly and safely as possible, ensuring he/she is treated positively on return.

If a child’s absence from a residential home is a cause for concern, the staff on duty should inform the on-call residential manager. If a child absents him/herself from foster care, the foster carer should inform the out-of-hours emergency duty team.

The manager on duty or the emergency duty team will consider whether the absence causes such concern as to fall within the definition of a missing child under this procedure.

If the child is deemed to be 'missing’, the residential staff or the duty officer should, without delay, inform:

  • The police: who will treat the matter as involving a “vulnerable missing person”. The name and contact details of the police officer spoken to should be recorded;
  • The parents as agreed in the child’s placement plan;
  • The child’s social worker as soon as practicable.

If the child is placed in a children’s home, the staff should fax to the police the child’s “Missing Person’s Enquiry Form” and the staff should confirm receipt of the form by the police.

If the child is missing from a foster placement, the police will be provided with details surrounding the absence including addresses where the child may be.

In all cases, the police will also be supplied with a recent photograph of the child. In urgent cases, this will be supplied at the time of reporting the child missing. In medium to low risk cases, this will be supplied as agreed with the police.

External providers and foster carers living outside the borough should follow police procedures relevant to their local area.

On receiving a report of a missing child, the police will circulate information about the child in accordance with their Missing Persons’ Policy and Procedures, taking account of the relevant circumstances, including the assessment of risk to the child and others. 

Throughout the process, the police will maintain close contact with the staff/carers involved. Communication of relevant information between the police, local authority and the relevant staff/carers will be immediate. All parties will record all conversations and any action taken. 

Foster carers should contact their supervising social worker, who will notify the manager of the fostering service, the child’s social worker and the social worker’s team manager.

External providers should contact the child’s social worker and the social worker’s team manager.

Where a child is still missing the following day, the staff/carer and/or child’s social worker will contact the child’s school and any other person who may assist as to the child’s whereabouts, including visiting addresses if appropriate. Any other children in the placement should also be asked if they have any information that may help to find the child.

Any additional relevant information should be communicated to the police.

If a child is missing for 24 hours or more, the child’s social worker should notify their team manager, service manager, the child’s Independent Reviewing Officer and the QA business manager.

In addition, the social worker must amend the child’s placement code on Mosaic to show the child as missing. The options are: 

  • Child in Refuge (S51 Children Act) - M1;
  • Child’s whereabouts known - M2;
  • Child’s whereabouts unknown - M3.

If the child has been missing for 24 hours, the residential staff/carer should conduct a search of the child’s bedroom. This may be carried out sooner if appropriate having regard to the circumstances. Any new information obtained as a result must be communicated to the police.

See Searching Children and their Belongings Procedure.

Any unauthorised absence lasting for five days should be reported to the Regulatory Authority.

If a child, who has been reported missing, returns to his/her carer in the meantime, the child’s social worker should inform the Police.

4. Risk Assessment

All children who have been missing from care for over 24 hours should be risk assessed using the ‘Missing or absent risk screening tool’ accessed via the start menu in Mosaic.

The social worker should discuss the outcome of the screening tool with their manager and this should be provided for any strategy meeting held.

If a child is missing from care and is deemed high risk by the police or by social work risk screening – please see Missing Children – Reporting to Senior Managers Procedure.

If a child is already known to be at risk of CSE, the Southwark CSE Risk Screening Tool should also be completed and the CSE co-ordinator informed.

5. Missing from Care Strategy Meeting

If a child is missing for over 24 hours, the child’s social worker should discuss the absence with his or her line manager.

A Missing from Care Strategy Meeting should always be considered if a child is missing for over 2 days. This will normally be chaired by a team manager.

This meeting may include:

  • The social worker and team manager;
  • A representative from the relevant Police Missing Persons Unit;
  • A representative from Southwark Police Child Abuse Investigation Team;
  • The Independent Reviewing Officer;
  • A representative from the Missing People organisation;
  • The child’s parents.

Prior to the meeting, the social worker will complete the risk assessment - set out in Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children. This will inform the discussion at the meeting.

The Missing from Care Strategy Meeting will consider:

  • The circumstances of the current missing episode;
  • Relevant historical information;
  • Reasons for the child’s behaviour;
  • Assessment of risk including risk of CSE;
  • Actions required, including lines of enquiry and possible publicity;
  • What should be done when the child is found.

The Missing From Care Strategy Meeting may be reconvened at a later date if the child is still not found.

6. Informing the Media

The Police have responsibility for any missing person enquiry and will decide whether media involvement will assist or hamper the enquiry.

A decision to use the media will only be made after consultation between the police and the Deputy Director of Specialist Children’s Service. If the child is subject of Care Proceedings the court will need to be fully appraised of the situation. The parents should also be involved.

Where media publicity is required, any statement made between agencies will normally be agreed through the local authority’s press officer in accordance with corporate guidelines. 

Where a child is to be publicised through the media, every effort will be made to inform the parents beforehand.

7. Unauthorised Absence of a Child

If the assessment of the social worker and team manager results in the view that the child’s absence is unauthorised, no report is made to the police. SCS staff should take all reasonable and practicable steps to establish the whereabouts of the child, and only when the risk assessment process identifies the child as ‘missing’ or ‘absconded’ should notification be made to the police. 

Where the situation is regarded as an unauthorised absence, the child should be the subject of continued risk assessment.

If the location of the child is known, and there are thought to be specific issues of safety or public order difficulties, then action to deal with those difficulties should be agreed in consultation with the police. 

8. Recording

Absences will be recorded in the following way:

  • On the child’s Mosaic record;
  • In the Link Worker’s monthly report (residential care);
  • In the monthly manager’s report (residential care);
  • In the children’s home central file (residential care);
  • In Form 585 held at the Police Missing Persons Unit.

9. Planning for the Child’s Return

If a child’s absence continues beyond a few hours and falls within this procedure, plans should be put in place for the child’s return. Planning should be undertaken by the social worker (or EDT social worker if out of hours), their line manager, police and parents (where appropriate). Such plans should include:

  1. Will the child return to the previous placement?
  2. How will he/she be conveyed there?
  3. Do the Police wish to interview the child before he/she is returned to his/her placement?
  4. Who will be an appropriate “independent person” to talk to the child after his/her return?
  5. Is it appropriate to apply for a Recovery Order?

Normally, the local authority will make arrangements for the transportation of a child to his/her residence. The police will assist in appropriate cases.

10. The Child’s Return

When a child returns to the home, the staff/carer should immediately inform the police, emergency duty team (where involved), fostering service (in the case of a child in foster care), parents, the child’s social worker and any others informed of the child’s absence.

Ideally, before he or she returns to the placement, the child should be offered the opportunity to talk to someone independent of the placement and Southwark Children’s Social Care about why they ran away. An exception maybe where a child has a strong relationship with a carer or social worker and has expressed a preference to talk to them, rather than an independent person, about the reasons they went missing’, (for example a child or young person with learning disability). On such occasions, the practitioner should record the reasons for doing so.

If the child declines the opportunity, the staff/carer or the child’s social worker should try and engage the child and find out why he or she went missing from the placement so that any immediate pressures can be dealt with. This may involve the child being referred to other services, for example drug or alcohol advisory services.

The child may be offered the opportunity to speak to the Children’s Rights Officer.

However, if there are repeated occasions of them going missing and the reasons remain unclear, then this might signal the need for an independent person who is trained to undertake the interview.

Note: The Statutory Guidance identifies: ‘When a looked after child is placed in a host authority, the responsible authority should ensure the independent review interview takes place, working closely with the host authority’.

The child should be welcomed home by their carers or residential unit and care should be taken to express concerns in a caring manner.

The child should be offered something to eat and, where appropriate, be taken for medical advice and treatment (with parents’ consent as necessary).

Where child protection issues are raised, the London Child Protection Procedures must be invoked and the IRO should be advised and consideration should also be given to the need to convene a Looked After Review to consider the child’s Care Plan.

The social worker must amend the child’s Mosaic record of placement to show that the child has returned and confirm that a return interview has been offered and the outcome of this.

Where it is considered appropriate in relation to a child placed in foster care, the Police Missing Persons Unit should be requested to provide an officer to talk to the child about their absences.

If the child has four episodes of being missing with each episode lasting longer than six hours, his/her social worker will be required as a matter of course to call a Placement Plan Review to address the absence. 

The purpose of the review will be to address the issue of the child’s absence by:

  • Assessing the reasons why the child has been missing;
  • Re-assessing the risk to the child by his/her absence;
  • Identifying strategies to manage the child’s absconding behaviour.

11. Missing During a Holiday or External Activity

The person in charge of the external activity or holiday should:

  • Notify the local police in that area and the home area;
  • Notify the manager of the home (where the child is in residential care), the emergency duty social worker, foster carer and/or the child’s social worker (where the child is in foster care);
  • Instigate a local search.

In relation to children in residential care, the manager of the home will be responsible for ensuring the general procedures in relation to missing children are followed. In relation to children in foster care, the responsibility rests with the child’s social worker.

In relation to an activity of a residential home, the manager of the home and the person in charge of the activity will decide within 24 hours of the absence whether the others taking part in the activity should return to the children’s home.

Ongoing communication regarding the missing child will be maintained between the staff/carers and the police local to where the absence occurred.

12. Longer Term Missing Persons

The Police will notify the National Missing Persons' Bureau 28 days after a child goes missing.

The designated manager for missing children (in Southwark this is the QA business manager) should formally review all cases where children have been missing for six months or more and should satisfy him/herself on the actions taken to recover the child.

All Police missing persons’ files will remain “live” until the person is traced or until the Divisional Commander (police) is satisfied that all lines of enquiry have been exhausted. S/he will then forward the file to the Assistant Chief Constable who will take the decision to close the file or otherwise.

Where the Assistant Chief Constable has made the decision to close the file, the Force Intelligence Bureau will be responsible for bringing forward the file on persons who remain missing for review by the Detective Superintendent 12 months after the file closure date.

13. Reporting to Elected Members

The designated manager for missing children will report to the senior managers as per the guidance in Missing Children – Reporting to Senior Managers Procedure.

Regular reports will be provided to the Strategic Director for Children and Adult Services, the SSCP and to the Corporate Parenting Committee giving information about patterns of absence among looked after children, including:
  • Action plans for minimising incidents of missing children;
  • Incidences of missing persons’ episodes;
  • Location - are children likely to run away from one placement rather than others and where do they run?
  • Any child protection implications including CSE or violent crime;
  • Actions taken when children return;
  • Any practice and/or procedural issues.

Appendix 1: Categories of Absence

Click here to view Appendix 1: Categories of Absence.

Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children

Click here to view Appendix 2: Risk Assessment Grid for Missing Children.

Appendix 3: Young People Missing From Care Process Flowchart

Click here to view Appendix 3: Young People Missing From Care Process Flowchart.