Missing Children

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

Children and young people can go missing for several reasons. Those who are missing, or have run away from home, are more likely to be absent from education. According to the UK Missing Persons Unit, over the last five years an average of 200,000 missing child incidents were reported to the police each year. The Centre for Social Justice also tells us that 140,000 children missed at least 35 days of education in the summer term 2022.



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

College of Policing, Authorised Professional Practice: Missing Persons (February 2023)


“A person not at a place where they are expected or required to be.”

National Police Chief’s Council


Quotation marks

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Why do children go missing?


Children and young people can go missing or run away for several reasons, usually because of a combination of push and pull factors.

Push factors


Things in the home or education environment that cause significant stress for the child or young person and lead them to believe that the only option to protect themselves is to leave.

Push factors can include:

  • Parental issues – for example, parental substance misuse, parental mental health issues 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 is to run away from home or stop attending their education setting.
  • Loneliness – the child or young person may see going missing as a chance to meet new people and make new friends.

Pull factors


Things that entice a child or young person to leave their home or education environment, usually believing that they can improve their lives in some way or meet an underlying need.

Pull factors can include:

  • Criminal exploitation – for example, when a child is recruited to sell drugs as part of county lines.
  • Sexual exploitation – a child may have been groomed and enticed to leave.
  • Peer pressure.
  • Excitement.
  • Exploration – being in other environments may mean that a child or young person gets to explore issues such as relationships, sexuality or gender.



Children and young people who are missing may be in serious danger and are vulnerable to crime, abuse, sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation, abduction, radicalisation and missing education.

The report, The Ethnicity of Missing People, also demonstrates the need to remember that the risks are the same for children from all ethnic groups, and “…risks may be being under-identified for children from Black and Asian communities.”

Missing education is not limited to non-attendance at an education setting. Absence from education should also include those:

  • not going to their classroom;
  • not staying in class;
  • not attending some lessons;
  • avoiding some physical spaces or people.

A child or young person who is going missing or missing education for prolonged and/or repeated occassions can be an early warning sign of potential safeguarding concerns, such as those identified earlier.

Missing children and young people are at significant risk of underachieving and more likely not to be in education, employment or training in later life, thereby limiting their potential.

Looked after children


According to the Department for Education, looked after children are more likely to go missing, and 1 in every 10 children in care is reported missing each year.  The Ethnicity of Missing People, states that a looked after child may go missing on average 6 times in a year, compared to twice for a child who is not looked after. It also states, that looked after children from Black and mixed ethnicities are likely to have higher numbers of missing incidents than other looked after children.

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 to re-establish some control.

Whilst it can be argued that their current home environment should be stable, there are additional issues linked with lack of control, such as:

  • feelings of not being listened to;
  • frustration around the “process”;
  • struggling with barriers put in place due to the “system”.

Many children and young people in care experience disrupted early childhoods, meaning that their relationships with others can be difficult and lacking in trust. This often results in poor social and emotional skills, can lead to poor coping strategies for dealing with emotionally stressful situations, and makes looked after children more vulnerable to exploitation.

It’s important that we are aware of the individual needs of looked after children and work to reduce the likelihood of missing incidents.

When a child goes missing

Our response when a child or young person goes missing is equally as important as understanding the reasons for them going missing.

Governing bodies, proprietors and senior leadership must ensure appropriate safeguarding arrangements are in place to respond to children who are absent from education, particularly on repeat occasions and/or for prolonged periods.

There are two stages:

  1. 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 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 reporting to the police, ensure you pass on all relevant details you know about the child, including any vulnerabilities and what you think may have led them to go missing, so officers can effectively complete the risk assessment that informs their response. For example, if a child had learning disabilities, and so was more vulnerable to harm, they would be considered at higher risk.

  1. When a child returns

Think about how to respond appropriately. Try not to apportion blame – seek to understand what it might be like to be in their shoes and establish what might prevent a further missing episode.

What do you observe 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?


Keeping Children Safe in Education outlines the importance of a setting’s response to persistently absent pupils and children missing from education, identifying any safeguarding concerns, and working with local children’s services to prevent abuse and the risk of children going missing in the future. Its particularly critical for children who are already known to social care services, because going missing from education may increase the existing safeguarding risks for the child or young person. 

Education settings can do the following to address potential cases of children missing education:

Keep talking


To ensure all children are safe and able to learn, it is vital that education settings and local authorities maintain effective communication with parents and carers.

Some parents may have had negative experiences of education themselves, which makes them reluctant to communicate with their child’s education setting or staff. The coronavirus pandemic has also led many parents and carers to become distanced from educational communities, and caused an increase in children and young people who are persistently absent from education.

It’s important to find ways to encourage two-way communication with parents and carers. This helps to build trust. When parents and carers have confidence that your setting can support their child, they are more likely to share important information regarding their child’s wellbeing, and they are more likely to encourage their child to attend.

Observe and respond


Regular reviews of attendance data can help staff to spot early indicators of potential absence, such as patterns of non-attendance or recurring lateness.

Other early indicators can include:

  • reports from parents or carers that a child is reluctant to attend;
  • the child or young person often complaining of feeling ill (e.g. stomach-ache, sickness, headaches);
  • changes in behaviour, for example, becoming less talkative with peers and staff, showing less interest in lessons or displaying challenging behaviour.

If you observe any changes in attendance patterns or behaviour, do not hesitate to raise your concerns with your designated safeguarding lead and follow your setting’s procedures.

Early action should include offering the child or young person the chance to discuss their situation and how they feel. This may help them open up and ask for help. It’s critical that students know they can speak to staff with confidence and know they will be listened to and supported.

Develop protective factors


Settings can develop protective factors to help counter the push or pull factors that may lead to a child or young person going missing.

Settings could:

  • Create safe spaces where children and young people feel secure and able to express their emotions and concerns, where they know they will be listened to, and can ask for the help they need.
  • Provide opportunities for children and young people to contribute to the decision-making process of the setting. This will help them feel that their voices are heard and valued.
  • Seek regular feedback from learners about what strategies are working, or not, and allow them to be involved in any adjustments that are required.

Children with additional needs and those who are known to social care services may require additional support and a targeted action plan, developed with their input, to help them feel empowered and build confidence in the setting’s ability to meet their individual needs.


  • Why Do Children Run Away?

    Although aimed at individuals who may want to run away, Runaway Helpline’s webpage provides more information about the reasons why children and young people run away from home or care.

  • Children Missing from Home

    The Children’s Society webpage offers information for parents and professionals about missing children and how to respond when a child goes missing.

  • Research about Missing Children

    Missing People has conducted several research projects about missing children over the last ten years. Here you will find information covering the vulnerabilities faced by looked after children, the voices of looked after children who go missing from care, the experiences of families whose children were exploited and the value of return to home interviews.

  • Missing Children Response Assessment Tool

    This benchmarking tool from The Children’s Society and NWG is designed to help local safeguarding partnerships to think about the responses and support they provide to children and young people who go missing from home or care.

  • Centring the Child

    In collaboration with NWG, Missing People published a resource to support professionals involved in return interview services after a missing child returns home. The resource provides guidance about how to remain child-centred while working with parents, carers and other family members to build up a picture of the child’s life and provide support.

  • Addressing School Avoidance

    This resource from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families looks at some of the reasons behind school avoidance and aims to help educational staff address the issue.

    You can also watch this video which provides practical ways that educational staff can help students by creating a space that allows them to feel both physically and emotionally safe.

  • Lost and Not Found

    This report from The Centre for Social Justice analyses the latest data regarding school attendance. It reveals the figures for school absence, examines the reasons behind school absence and identifies the children most likely to be missing from school.

  • Working Together to Improve School Attendance

    This non-statutory guidance from the Department for Education has been produced to help schools, trusts, governing bodies, and local authorities maintain high levels of school attendance.

  • The Ethnicity of Missing People

    This report by Missing People is based on findings from the latest police and local authority data, and examines the experiences of people from different ethnic groups who go missing or have a loved one go missing.

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