Looking deeper into the reasons children in care ‘go missing’

From the time I entered care aged 9 to leaving it again aged 14 I had been moved around 15 times. My shortest stays were the odd respite placement, my longest was about 6 months. The reasons for the constant moves were varied; I was on a short term care order and placed with short term carers who took that literally; one family decided they were going to move to Florida and another family found out they were expecting a baby so they both handed me back. Another family was accused of abuse from their former foster child so I was removed pending investigation. Twice, I was returned home briefly only to be brought back into care, then there were the two children’s homes and the one secure unit, all of which were never meant to be long-term stays. I stopped unpacking my bag after about the fourth placement. With the amount of times social workers moved me, I thought it rather audacious of them to order me to stay put.

The fact that we refer to children as ‘going missing’ indicates that we are not seeing the issue from the child’s perspective. I was never missing – I knew exactly where I was.

It started for me before I entered the care system. Running away from abuse at home was the best way I could keep myself safe. Parents that despise and neglect you are unlikely to call the police when they don’t see you for a while. I would usually wander back home when I got cold, hungry, or tired enough. It was never a problem until the social workers got involved.

‘Going missing’ from my first placement – a children’s home, was the first time I did it with other children. What adventures we had! In my eyes, the older girls were looking after me in the same way my big sister used to when we’d be kicked out the house from dawn until dusk. I didn’t see this as a risk or a problem. When the police cars chased us down, I laughed along with the older girls, frightened and thrilled in equal measure. The police were a free ride home for care kids after a day of frolicking – at least, that’s what I was taught.

It took me a while to learn that this wasn’t some Tom and Jerry game. The scoldings I received for ‘going missing’ filled me with shame. Rather than conditioning me against running, the shame made me want to run away more. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that people were unhappy with me and that I was a pain in the arse, so the next time I ran was to relieve my carers of the burden of my company. I’ve always been very considerate like that.

I was accused of doing it for attention which made no logical sense. If I wanted attention, why would I vanish? I lost privileges and comforts as punishment for running away which gave me even less of an incentive to stay in my foster home.

The main trigger for my running was something making me feel unsafe or unwanted. I didn’t understand trauma or my own physiological responses to past abuse at the time. Random PTSD triggers would activate the self protection setting in my brain and I would be 10 streets away before anyone could even ask ‘What’s wrong?’

When I was out, it was like I was a different person. Street me had places to go, people to see, jobs to do. She wasn’t about to willingly go back into vulnerable scared girl mode by returning home, dragging my tail behind me.

I felt safe and in control when I was out on my own and the opposite when I was in my foster placement. Social services and the police saw it the other way around. They thought I was risk seeking when I was safety seeking.

There’s a reason ‘home’ and ‘safe’ are words not usually associated together by children who are removed from unsafe homes. If someone had asked ‘What does safety mean to you?’ maybe we could have got somewhere. If I had been given the message ‘Please come home, we love you.’ instead of police calls and a telling off, I might have wanted to return. If everyone remembered the classic line that a child isn’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time, then we might get to seen what is really missing.

Tips for working with a child in care who goes missing

What doesn’t help – treating the child like a criminal, being angry, withdrawing love or care, blaming, making home an even less desirable place to be.

What might help:

  • Meet the need. Work on how to create a sense of freedom, control, belonging, and safety at home. Maybe that looks like writing some house rules together, including rules for carers that respect the child’s rights.
  • Right after returning home is not the best time to talk about it. – Bring the conversation up when things have calmed down and gone back to normal.
  • Encourage the child to talk to you when they are struggling and agree on a protocol to run through if they feel like they want to run away – it could be as simple as going for a walk together to get out of the house.
  • Arrange a safe space to escape to – maybe a grandparents house or local youth club.
  • Request they call you if they do go missing just to let you know that they are OK, not for you to ask where they are or demand they come home. This will show them that you genuinely do care about their safety first and foremost, and not about ticking boxes or covering your back.
  • Get the child involved in regular clubs, activities, or projects that they won’t want to miss out on. This will also help them lay down some roots in the local area and establish a routine.
  • Explain why such a big deal needs to be made when children in care go missing, without blaming or shaming them or making it sound like you’re complaining. Remember they didn’t ask to be a looked after child or have you fuss over their safety.