By Local Democracy Reporter Katie May Nelson
A vulnerable child in county council care went missing for over three and a half years, a Freedom of Information request has revealed.
Data shows councils responsible for looked after children are seeing an average of 2,118 missing episodes every year – or six a day – across the county.
A Freedom of Information request to Kent County Council (KCC) shows since 2018, there have been 8,147 recorded incidents where these children who are under the authority’s care went missing, which is an average of 1,965 a year.
Of these, 340 were Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC); in 2021, children who were seeking asylum went missing 82 times, which was an increase of 43% from 2020.
Among non-asylum seeking children, there were 1,699 reports last year.
Since 2018, the longest time a cared for child went missing for was just under 18 weeks. However, the council reported one asylum seeking child went missing for just under 185 weeks.
The council confirmed of the 167 incidents where a child was missing for over a week between January 2018 and the end of February 2022, all had been found and returned.
Between January 2018 and February 2022 there were 892 children – of which 166 were UASC – under the council’s care who were deemed to be at risk of exploitation either through gang involvement, criminal activity or exploitation, trafficking, radicalisation, or child sexual exploitation.
Josie Allan, a representative at the charity Missing People, said the risks to these children include being coerced into sex, running or storing drugs or weapons, and shoplifting.
She said: “It can be really hard for them to escape because the grooming entrenches them within it, because they become increasingly known perpetrators in the area.
“We know that children have been prosecuted for crimes that have been committed while they were exploited and actually they weren’t responsible for what was happening.
“Unfortunately, UASC are amongst those at the highest risk of going missing long term; they’re more likely to go missing for longer than almost any other group.
“We think that’s often because they are trafficked into modern slavery, where they may be held against their will or held in enforced slave labour.
“It can vary what that looks like, it might be being forced to work in a cannabis farm, it could be doing work in a nail bar or a car wash, it might be domestic labour, or it might be sexual exploitation.
“We think there should be wraparound support for any children who are at risk of going missing and that should be specialised depending on the child and their circumstances.
“So a really big one is building trusting relationships. Having appropriate placements (which are) culturally sensitive and or language appropriate; if it’s an unaccompanied minor then they need hopefully to be with someone that they can talk to you and can understand them.
“We think that there needs to be special support in place to ensure that young people have access to education, that they’re engaging at school, and we want more safe spaces for them to talk about what’s happening for them.”
A spokesperson for KCC said: “Any child or young person missing from care is a serious concern to this council.
“To such an extent that unlike some other local authorities and police forces, KCC and Kent Police do not use the classification of ‘unauthorised absence’ to denote when the whereabouts of a young person are known but they are not where they are supposed to be.
“Children and young people in care are not in detention and cannot be locked up in their foster home or placement.
“It is unlawful to restrict the freedoms or movements of any child or young person without the authorisation of the courts.
“The council is extremely careful to avoid children and young people going missing by placing them with experienced foster carers, or supported living providers, training them in the importance of looking out for signs of trafficking and work closely with all our children in care to understand what the push and pull factors are which cause missing episodes to occur.
“All our missing children and young people in care are offered a returner interview and young people tell us that pull factors are the most significant reason to go missing and, in this regard, they are overwhelmingly seeking contact with extended family members and friends.
“For a small number there are serious concerns about their welfare and safety, and we work closely with Kent Police, the Home Office, non-governmental organisations and our carers to reduce the risk of them going permanently missing and keep them safe in Kent.
“KCC is held accountable for the care of all looked after children by the Department for Education and Ofsted but the overall responsibility for ensuring that the response to children who go missing is appropriate and effective is a multi-agency one .
“Regular multi agency strategy meetings are held for all missing children to plan an effective and appropriate response.
“The responsibility for taking steps to find and return all missing people including children sits with the police.”