The NSPCC is calling for urgent action to protect children from sexual exploitation as new figures reveal that nearly 3,000 repeatedly went missing from care last year.

Police forces in England and Wales recorded over 28,000 such incidents with some children running away dozens of times.

'Love, stability and routine'
Speaking at last week's 'How Safe are our Children?' conference [18-19 Apr] Children's and Families Minister Edward Timpson highlighted that, "while children face a wider range of dangers than ever before they are still most likely to come to harm at home from someone they know".

Relating back to his own experiences growing up alongside 80 foster children and two adopted brothers, Timpson added: "Having lived and worked, for many years, with children damaged by neglect and abuse, I’ve seen, first-hand, what failure to act can mean – both in terms of the huge challenges these incredibly vulnerable children face and what it takes to turn lives around.

"But, over time, I saw how love, stability and routine helped them settle and thrive. And it became increasingly clear to me that many could have been spared immense suffering and long-term damage if they’d got consistent and reliable help earlier."

Increased risk of harm
When children frequently go missing it puts them at increased risk of harm, particularly from grooming gangs, who specifically target vulnerable youngsters for sexual abuse.

As such, the NSPCC wants a more focused effort to establish why individual young people go missing and improve ways of preventing it happening.

Tom Rahilly, head of the NSPCC’s Looked After Children programme, said: "The state needs to be a parent for these children. If any other child went missing their parents would move heaven and earth to find them and to understand why they did it. It should be no different for young people in care.

"Children go missing for many reasons – they’re being bullied, they’ve been put in a home miles from their family and they miss them and their friends, or they just don’t trust staff enough to tell them where they are. Many will have been abused before being placed in care and they need a lot of attention and protection. Going missing for just an hour or two can be long enough for them to come to harm." 

No clear picture of the size of the problem

The NSPCC is calling for:
• Repeatedly going missing from care to be seen by all professionals as a sign that children are at heightened risk of harm.
• Children’s experiences of going missing from care to be put at the heart of professionals’ responses. Too often children say that they are punished for going missing while their concerns and fears are not listened to or understood.
• Professionals working in residential homes to act like parents - finding out why a child went missing and how their needs can be met to keep them safe and prevent more incidents.
• Police, children’s services and residential care providers to focus on preventing children going missing in the first place and returning them to safe care as quickly as possible when they do.

An inquiry in 2010 by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children was told there was evidence that missing children are at risk of being groomed and sexually exploited but there was no clear picture of the size of the problem.

For more coverage of the 'How Safe 2013' conference see: