About Missing UK children

A child disappears in UK every three minutes

EVERY three minutes a child disappears in the UK.

This is a horrifying statistic and everyone in this country should be up in arms about it. But they’re not. In fact most people in Britain have no idea how huge the problem of missing children is.

I think for years in Britain we have seen missing children as being a problem linked to teenage runaways. But the truth is that every child is at risk of becoming one of those statistics.

See also “Cold Cases on this website” above

This staggering “one child every three minutes” statistic was calculated by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP) using recently collated figures. It includes teenage runaways, parental abductions, unexplained disappearances and kidnaps.

Home Office England and Wales Crime Statistics

In terms of parental child abduction, the Home Office statistics will only strictly count those incidents that fall within the legal definition, which consists of the child being taken or sent out of the country.

Home Office research study on child abduction examined 798 police reports of child abduction in England and Wales. Just over half (399) were attempted abductions. Out of the 798 reports, 56% (447) involved a stranger, 47% (375) were attempted abductions by a stranger and 9% (72) of all reports were successful child abductions by a stranger; 23% (183) of all reported abductions were parental.

Greater Manchester Police received 11,819 reports of missing children in 2010/2011– with 2,281 of those aged 11 or younger, and the youngest just three just in their area. Detectives closed the files completely on eight youngsters who have disappeared without trace for at least six months. Some 327 children went missing eight or more times – with one youngster racking up 100 incidents and others dozens each. Investigating those 327 cases alone cost police a staggering £7.2m of taxpayers’ cash. Nearly half of the reports of missing children – 5,598 – related to youngsters living in care at the time.

Children who go missing are at risk of harm. When a child goes missing, there is something wrong, often quite seriously, in that child’s life. Police are immediately responsible for investigating the case, and along with local authority children’s services are responsible for safeguarding the child.

The reasons behind missing incidents are varied, where children go missing as a consequence of specific, distinct circumstances. The serious problem of missing and abducted children in the UK is a broad, complex and challenging issue. In the UK, it is poorly defined, lacking in accurate statistics and subject to an array of responses at local, national and international levels. At the same time, there is a pressing and urgent concern for improving responses to cases of missing and abducted children. Being missing from home or a place of residence not only entails several inherent risks for children and young people, but is also a cause and consequence of other grave concerns in any child’s life

The reasons for which children go missing are broad and varied. Some young people will have ‘decided’ to leave home, others have become increasingly detached for various reasons, while some children are forced or abducted. According to research, children are more likely to be reported missing than adults, even though young people are more likely to go missing wilfully. In research 70% of children and young people reported missing had done so by choice. This included those who stayed away from home without permission, without intending to leave for good. Furthermore, 4% of the young people had ‘drifted’ away, 10% were unintentionally missing, and 8% had been forced to leave, which included both parental abduction and being thrown out. Children who have been abducted will not necessarily be recorded as missing children

Distinction between long term and short term missing children

It is first necessary to make a distinction between cases of long and short term missing children. The vast majority of missing children cases are resolved within a matter of days, if not hours. These cases, often coming under the umbrella term of ‘young runaways’, usually indicate particular problem issues within a child’s life which require immediate attention. Where such issues are not resolved, the child often becomes increasingly detached from home and vulnerable to dangers such as crime, homelessness, sexual exploitation and grooming.

On the other hand, long -term missing cases are generally distinct from the problems surrounding ‘young runaways’ (albeit that cases may overlap) and can be further broken down into sub groups. Longer term missing children often come to some serious harm. Such cases include those who were previously repeat runaways, those who have been abducted or kidnapped or those who have been

Categories of missing children – Stranger abduction

Child abduction is an offence under Section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984. Although such cases are relatively rare, children face the risk of abduction by strangers who approach them in public. Such strangers may be motivated to commit sexual offences. Alternatively, children may be abducted as a result of family feuds.Children and young people may also be targeted and groomed by adults for sexual abuse, exploitation, criminality and other under illicit activities. In the present information and communication technology age, children are increasingly targeted and groomed online and through other media devices. The term ‘stranger abduction’ may not be relevant in these situations as the child or young person may feel that the abductor is known to them and will often refer to them as a

Parental abduction

Children and young people are also caught up in custodial disagreements between parents, sometimes leading to child abduction by the non-custodial parent. This is also an offence under Section 1 of the Child Abduction Act 1984. On separation, where the parents cannot agree on residence and contact arrangements, the family courts will intervene and decide on which parent takes principal custody of the child. This can be a particularly contentious issue where the mother and father live in two different countries or are from two different cultures. An aggrieved parent may abduct their own child from the custodial parent contrary to court orders and take them abroad. Such situations are extremely fraught for both the children and parents involved. As a result, children are at risk of harm where the abducting non-custodial parent may present a danger to the child or where the lack of ensuing contact and sudden change of locality may detrimentally affect the long term wellbeing of the child. There have been cases where an estranged parent abducts their children and which lead to fatal outcomes. 


The term ‘runaway’ is used to describe “a young person who describes him/herself as having spent one night or more away from home without parental permission while under the age of 16”. Children and young people may leave home of their own volition. This may be a consequence of running away from a problem at home, or running to another, often problematic, situation. Push factors for children and young people to leave home are broad and variable. Research has demonstrated that the most common reasons for running away relate to problems at home or school. This group of missing children have historically been termed ‘runaways’, implying that young people go missing of their own volition. However, the term ‘runaway’ refers to a broad group of children and young people, some of which are not described accurately by the term. Cases of young people are often more complicated, involving an interplay of various risk and vulnerability factors.

Main triggers and root causes for running away usually reside in the child’s place of residence. Parents or other legal guardians may be unable or unwilling to provide the care and provisions the young person needs, pushing them out of home. Some parents or other individuals within or close to the household or place of residence may be the source of a threat or fear of violence, whether physical, sexual or emotional. Running away can be seen as an attempt by the young person to
escape from these threats of violence, abuse, neglect or rejection, and may be regarded as a positive step toward taking control by young people. Young people may go missing a number of times, and each incident presents authorities and agencies with an opportunity to intervene. One police force reported that a young person had been reported missing close to a hundred times within a year.

Where root causes are not resolved, the underlying issues continue to grow with the danger that they can spiral out of control. Clearly, the more often a child goes missing, the more vulnerable they become. Only a very small proportion of these children actually receive any help from agencies.In their report Still Running II, the Children’s Society were able to draw together some social factors relating to the ‘runaway’ population in their research. The research surveyed 10,772 young people in 70 mainstream secondary schools. The final data set consisted of 10,716 respondents. According to the report, young people in single, step or other ‘different’ types of family settings have a higher probability of running away. Those young people living in care were found to be three times more likely to run away than those living within their family home. Many of these children came from troubled backgrounds and had a history of running away before going into care. Overall, more girls admitted to having run away than boys.

Young people of Afro-Caribbean ethnicity suffered the highest rate of running away with Asians having the lowest rate. Some children began running away from the age of 11 years, though the mean age was shown to be 15 years

Problems at school have also been recognised as a factor in causing young people to run away from home; evidence points to links between running away from home and truancy from school.More research is necessary to establish the common causal factors between educational engagement and going missing. For example, it is not known if low academic achievement is a consequence rather than a cause for the child’s problems at home or their missing incidents.

Other young people may become increasingly detached from their home or school life and more attached to other ways of life.Many of these cases go unreported, especially where the young person has been pushed out of their home. In such cases, parents or legal guardians may themselves be the cause of the child going missing and would hence be unlikely to report it to the police.

Looked-after children are clearly a particularly vulnerable group and the source of a disproportionately large amount of missing reports.For various reasons, they have been taken into local authority care as their parents or other legal guardians are absent or incapable of providing the necessary care and support. Such children and young people commonly enter the care system with their own sets of problems and issues. Indeed, such children may already have a history of going missing. The specific system of institutional care, particularly outside of a family setting, has its own push factors. For example, looked-after children may seek affection and love elsewhere.

This vulnerability can be specifically targeted by groomers for exploitation 

Looked after children will also be more readily reported missing than children living at home in families. Whereas a parent may not feel so alarmed by their child coming home late and may also engage in some enquiries themselves, such as phoning friends and relatives to locate the child, children’s homes must follow strict protocols where a child is late after curfew or absent. 


‘Detached’ describes children and young people who “are away from home or care for lengthy periods of time and who live outside of key societal institutions such as family, education and other statutory services: who do not receive formal sources of support; and who are self-reliant and/or dependent upon informal support networks”.

These children and young people are particularly vulnerable and marginalised. Recent research by Smeaton, commissioned by the Railway Children, conducted a three-year study on 103 children and young people who had experienced being detached under the age of 16 years.

Issues raised by this research include chaotic and difficult family and home lives, and ongoing regular experiences of violence from carers, partners and others in the form of threats, intimidation and assault. Half of the males defined themselves as belonging to a gang and both males and females experienced sexual violence, including gang rape. The majority of young people who participated in the research had experienced life on the streets before becoming completely detached. Survival strategies included shop-lifting, burglary, stealing cars, involvement in selling drugs, selling sex and begging. Most of the children and young people did not seek formal support due to their experiences being normalised. Many of these children would not be reported missing. 

Groomed and trafficked

Sexual exploitation is both a cause and consequence of children going missing. Children can be exploited in a number of ways, the most documented form of which is sexual exploitation. In recent years, there has been growing concern over the grooming of children and young people (mainly girls) into sexual exploitation. The principal profile of sexual grooming is that of older males who befriend vulnerable girls, gaining their trust, and eventually becoming their ‘boyfriends’. These  relationships are carefully planned so that the groomer gains control, placing them in a position of power and enabling them to perpetrate and facilitate varied and serious sexual offences against vulnerable girls, often by groups of men.

Missing incidents often begin with or are further exacerbated by relationships with groomers. These children and young people will go missing overnight or over a number of days or weeks while their abusers provide them with drugs and alcohol. Abusers often transport their victims around towns and cities where they will be sexually abused by other men. Offenders often act in concert, establishing a relationship with a child or children before sexually exploiting them. Some victims of this type of exploitation may believe that the offender is in fact an older ‘boyfriend’, introducing peers to the offender group who may also be sexually exploited. Abuse may occur at a number of locations within a region and on several occasions. Children may be coerced into going missing from short to extended periods of time.

There is also an emerging concern regarding girls exploited by gangs they or their peers may be involved with. There is limited evidence to suggest that girls are often ‘linked’ with gang members for their own safety and status