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

From the time Jenny entered care aged 9 to leaving it again aged 14 she had been moved around 15 times. Her shortest stays were the odd respite placement, the longest were about 6 months. The reasons for the constant moves were varied; one family decided they were going to move to Florida and another family found out they were expecting a baby so they both handed her back; another family was accused of abuse from their former foster child so she was removed pending investigation. Twice, she 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. She stopped unpacking her bag after about the fourth placement. With the amount of times social workers moved Jenny, she thought it rather audacious of them to order her 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 before she entered the care system. Running away from abuse at home was the best way to keep herself safe. Parents that despise and neglect you are unlikely to call the police when they don’t see you for a while. She would usually wander back home when she got cold, hungry, or tired enough. It was never a problem until the social workers got involved.

‘Going missing’ from her first placement, a children’s home, was the first time she did it with other children. What adventures they had! In Jenny’s eyes, the older girls were looking after like her big sister used to when they’d be kicked out their house. She didn’t see this as a risk or a problem. When the police cars chased the girls down, Jenny 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 they were taught.

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

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

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

When Jenny was out, it was like she was a different person. Street Jenny 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 her.

Jenny felt safe and in control when she was out on her own and the opposite when she was in her foster placement. Social services and the police saw it the other way around. They thought she was risk seeking when she was in fact 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 she had been given the message ‘Please come home, we love you.’ instead of police calls and a telling off, she might have wanted to return. If everyone could remember the classic line that a child isn’t giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time, then we might get to see 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.