Exclusive: One in five missing people in Leeds are children in care

Children in care in Leeds went missing on at least 660 occasions in 2015/16.
Children in care in Leeds went missing on at least 660 occasions in 2015/16.

ALMOST ONE in five people reported missing to police in Leeds last year was a child in care, the YEP can reveal.

Children in care went missing on at least 660 occasions in 2015/16, with the city’s children’s homes recognised as a hotspot for missing persons reports.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom.

Today police stressed the need to tackle the root causes behind some children going missing dozens of times.

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom, of West Yorkshire Police said: “There can’t be a bigger crime issue than what’s going on here. Sitting behind it is the whole child sexual (CSE) exploitation issue.”

He also warned that there was a risk of the force being overwhelmed as total missing persons cases rose 25 per cent.

But even in the face of a 47 per cent increase in missing children in care in Leeds, the city council maintained it was effectively managing the issue strategically and on the ground.

It’s a massive burden on our resources when we’ve lost 20 per cent of staff in five years.

Nick Smart, West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman

The total cases in Leeds during the 12 months to the end of June was 3,607 – just 336 cases fewer than the whole of Humberside for the same period.

It represents a 43 per cent rise in cases compared to the same period in 2014/15, with children aged 14 to 17 continuing to be the most frequently involved age group.

Chief Superintendent Paul Money, Leeds Divisional Commander, said: “Last week, on a nondescript Wednesday night, there were 33 missing people in Leeds from 6pm to 10pm.”

The manpower needed to deal with the ever-increasing number of cases is pushing the service to “breaking point”, according to the West Yorkshire Police Federation.

Chief Superintendent Paul Money, Leeds Divisional Commander.

Chief Superintendent Paul Money, Leeds Divisional Commander.

Its chairman, Nick Smart, said: “It’s a massive burden on our resources when we’ve lost 20 per cent of staff in five years. While we’re looking for these children that go missing, we’re not doing what the public probably expect us to be doing. We don’t have an endless supply of cops.”

Significantly, children in care in Leeds were the subject of just over 18 per cent of all missing persons reports, with some going missing on a regular basis. They are also recognised as a group vulnerable to child sexual exploitation (CSE).

Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom said: “Quite often with some of these girls, it’s not just that general threat. We’ve had them leaving homes telling staff ‘I’m off to see such and such’. It’s a man, generally not their age, who’s got a sex offence history.”

There were 1,883 missing persons cases in Leeds involving children in 2015/16, up from 1,437 in 2014/15.

The number of reports related to children in care, in particular, has risen by 47 per cent, up from 449 in 2014/15 to 660 in 2015/16.

Janice Hawkes, Safeguarding Lead for Barnardo’s East Region, pointed to national rise in reporting after the Rotherham scandal and a more co-ordinated response from local safeguarding boards as potential causes.

And Steve Walker, deputy director of children’s services at Leeds City Council, said a move by police to log people as ‘missing’ instead of ‘absent’ at an earlier stage was also a factor in the increase.

But Mr Milsom said there was no doubt in his mind that it was a genuine increase, not a recording issue.

“This is something which has significantly changed over the last 12 months and increasingly so,” he said.

The top 15 locations for missing persons calls across West Yorkshire in the 12 weeks up to September 18 were all children’s homes.

These 15 sites were responsible for 63 per cent of cases involving young people in children’s homes, with between 24 and 89 cases each. There were 40 incidents involving one young person at high risk of CSE alone.

Chief Supt Money said: “It’s the number of repeat missing people where we need to work more effectively with agencies.”

Mr Smart accused agencies of passing their burden failing to address the causes.

“The onus should be on our partner agencies in social care to recognise this and do something about it,” he said.

“A lot of the time they don’t have the staffing, the resources or the places to look after these children.”

Asked whether funding was an issue, Mr Walker said the council had protected spending on its children’s services.

He acknowledged the pressure on police resource generated by missing children, but said he was confident that this “would be the last kind of service they would reduce”.

But Mr Milsom said current health and social care systems were under signficant strain across West Yorkshire.

He said: “Are the strains starting to show? Yes.

“Are the police going to be able to deal with it? We’re getting overwhelmed.”

The issue of missing people has also been considered significant enough to warrant a special summit. Hosted by the county’s police and crime commissioner, it will look at how to reduce and prevent people from going missing.