Missing children

Children are missing if their whereabouts cannot be established and the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person may be subject of crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another.

“A child or young person under 16 runs away every five minutes in the UK. […]  It is estimated that every year 18,000 children and young people under 16 sleep rough or with someone they have just met”

Railway Children – Reaching Safe Places

Children can go missing or run away for a variety of issues.  Whatever the circumstances they are at significant risk of harm due, often associated with the decisions that they have to make whilst away from their home.  These decisions are often routed in the need for protection and meeting their basic care needs but theses can often lead to them being in “debt” to others and / or being exploited.

Definition of missing

Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established will be considered missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed.

College of Policing – Major investigation and public protection: Missing persons (2019)


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FREE Missing Poster

This downloadable resource raises the profile of safeguarding for your staff team. For use in staff rooms, on safeguarding boards or on the back of toilet doors the poster includes tips, a space for local contact details together with a link and QR Codes to this resource page.


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Push factors


Push factors are those things in the home environment that lead the child or young person to believe that the only option is to run away.

Push factors are often linked to issues that cause significant stress for the child or young person associated with the home.  These can include:

  • parental issues – for example parental substance misuse or domestic abuse within the home.
  • family conflict or breakdown – for example numerous arguments in the home or a parent starting a new relationship with someone the child does not like.
  • abuse and / or bullying – being a victim of abuse may lead children and young people to believe that the only option to stop it is to run away.
  • loneliness – the child or young person may see running away as a chance to meet new people and make new friends.
  • loss of control – particularly for children and young people in care, the perceived lack of control over their lives and lack of involvement in key decision making can lead to them running away as a means to reestablish some control.

Often underlying this is poor social and emotional skills which in turn means that there are poor coping strategies for dealing with emotionally stressful situations.

Pull factors


Pull factors are those things that entice a young person to leave their home environment, usually believing that they are improving their lives in some way or meeting some underlying need.

Any child or young person is susceptible to being groomed, regardless of gender and background.  They may strike up a relationship with an exploiter online and then be enticed to go and meet them in real life but be told not to tell anyone as this may mean that adults try to stop them.  For some children and young people it may be a means for exploring relationships, sexuality, gender or other lifestyles that they are not able to talk with those around them about.

Statistics show that around 70% of children and young people who are sexually exploited, go missing or run away from home.

Looked after children

Looked after children are 20 times more likely to run away (1 in 10) than those who are not looked after (1 in 200).  Whilst it can be argued that their current home environment should be stable, there are numerous additional issues linked with lack of control, feelings of not being listened to, frustration around the “process” and barriers put in place due to the “system”.  Many children in care also have disrupted early childhoods meaning that their relationships with others can be difficult and lacking in trust.  It is therefore important that we are aware of the needs of looked after children and work to reduce the likelihood of missing incidents.

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Responding to a child or young person running away

Our response to children who run away is equally as important as understanding the reasons for them running away.  There are two stages:

When a child is missing:

  • Think about how much you know about the child, their friends, their likes and dislikes.   Do they have any routines that they follow all the time, are there any favourite places that they like to go? What do you know about the context in which they went missing, for example was there a big argument immediately prior to the missing episode?  Is there anything that may be drawing them away?

When a child returns:

  • Think about how you might or do react.  Think about what you see when they return.  Are they intoxicated (either through drink and / or drugs), are they wearing different clothes, are there any signs that they have been given money, phones, etc.?  Are they tired, do they have physical injuries?  Try not to apportion blame but seek to understand what it might be like to be in their shoes and establish what might prevent a further missing episode.


  • Lessons to learn: Exploring the links between running away and absence from school

    Research shows that children who run away are three times more likely to be absent from school. Children spend more time at school than anywhere else. It is crucial that school and education professionals are able to recognise running away as a cry for help. This report explores the link between problems at school, including absences and exclusions, and running away. It makes a series of recommendations about how young people at risk should be supported and how professionals can better meet their needs.

  • Reaching Safe Places – exploring the journeys of young people who run away from home or care

    Railway Children has always focused on the plight of children and young people who run away and end up on the streets. In 2009 we published ‘Off the Radar’, an in-depth study on the lives and experiences of over a hundred children who were detached from parents and carers and/or had spent four weeks or longer on the streets. By 2014 we were concerned that the closure of all but one refuge for young runaways, and the inconsistent use of local authority emergency accommodation was leaving young people without a safe place at the time they needed it most. Alongside this, outreach workers were reporting that it was increasingly difficult to find young people on the street, meaning that they were less visible than ever. This led us to conclude that we should be researching young people’s journeys in more detail, both to identify possible points of intervention and to establish what factors helped or hindered the search for a safe place.

  • Protecting young runaways

    Set of resources for parents and professionals developed by the Children’s Society in order to think about missing children and how to respond.

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  • Training resources for DSLs to use in team meetings
  • Reference documents for additional information
  • Handout for school staff summarising missing children
  • Quiz to test staff understanding
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