Exploited children in care ‘disappear an average of 10 times a year’

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Children in care who are victims of exploitation go missing an average of ten times a year, figures show.

Around half of children in care identified by their local council as victims of exploitation disappeared from care between 2018 and 2020, according to figures provided by charities Missing People and ECPAT UK.

In 2020, 3,033 children in care were identified by local authorities as exploited, 5% more than the previous year.

Of these, 48% – 1,468 children – have disappeared.

By comparison, Department for Education figures show that one in 10 children in care went missing in 2020-21, while in the UK around one in 200 children go missing each year.

Each child went missing an average of 10.6 times in 2020. Over the three years, more than 44,000 cases of missing children were recorded.

The fact that these children were disappearing on average more than 10 times a year suggests that much more needs to be done to keep exploited children safe.

Jane Hunter, Missing Persons

The charities sent Freedom of Information requests to 218 UK local authorities and shared the results with the PA news agency.

Over the three years, the number of exploited children in care increased by 13.8%, from 2,615 in 2018 to 3,033 in 2020.

In 2018, 52% and in 2019 53% of these children disappeared.

While the proportion of missing children has fallen slightly in 2020, charities say this needs to be seen in the context of coronavirus lockdowns and related measures.

Jane Hunter, senior research and impact manager at Missing People, called the numbers “staggering”.

She said: ‘These children may be missing in very high risk situations, including county lines and sexual exploitation, and some will have suffered very serious harm while they are gone.

“Each missing child should be seen as a key intervention point, when child protection needs are identified and support can be put in place.

“The fact that these children went missing on average more than 10 times a year suggests that much more needs to be done to keep exploited children safe.

We know this is the right approach: shockingly, this vulnerable group of children are continually left behind and put at risk of further abuse.

Patricia Durr, ECPAT UK

Patricia Durr, Chief Executive of ECPAT UK, said: “Disappearing is a cry for help and given the harms children face, it is crucial that disappearance is understood as an indicator of exploitation.

“For children who are known to have been exploited, protection partners must take steps to ensure they are protected from further missing episodes, as well as from harm and exploitation.

“We know this is the right approach: it is shocking to see this vulnerable group of children being continually abandoned and put at risk of further abuse.”

Research has shown that exploited children are at high risk of disappearance. The disappearance of a child is a common consequence of criminal and sexual exploitation.

Young people may be lured or coerced into fleeing safety by groomers, disappear due to involvement with county borders, or disappear trying to escape the consequences of exploitation.

The charities said that during the pandemic county line tactics have evolved, with children staying in traps longer, with more local children being recruited to avoid public arrest.

The charity also highlighted the impact of an anonymous chatbot service, officially launched in May 2021, for children who are victims of exploitation or at risk of exploitation.

Sara Rowbotham, who this week was named MBE, directs the Is This OK? service for exploited children (Steve Parsons/PA)

Is This OK?, put together by Missing People and the NSPCC’s Childline, is led by Sara Rowbotham, the frontline sexual health worker who helped uncover the widespread sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale, and became this week Member of the Order of the British Empire.

It has been viewed 2,359 times where it is available in Waltham Forest, Bradford, Stoke-on-Trent, Suffolk and Bedfordshire, and is seeking more funding to operate nationally.

Children who have contacted the service include a pregnant teenager who ran away, a girl whose older boyfriend pressured her to use drugs and a girl who self-harmed after being raped by her athletic trainer.

After an hour-long conversation with counsellors, a girl who disclosed past sexual abuse from a family friend said: ‘Thank you so much, you really helped me. I thought I was going to end it today, but you really helped me. I see it’s not my fault – thanks again.