Missing children vulnerable to exploitation

May 25 was International Missing Children’s Day. Work with offenders looks at the issues

76,000 children are reported missing every year in the UK, yet many more missing episodes go unreported, meaning children at risk of exploitation are falling through the net. The organisation Missing People has analysed the most common reasons for children to be missing. The organisation runs a helpline and the most common issues raised in helpline conversations with children relate to: problems at home; abuse, domestic violence or child sexual exploitation; mental health issues and living in care.

The charity publishes some key statistics:

Conflict, abuse and neglect at home

  • More than half of missing children have experienced this and 1 in 5 felt forced to leave  

Sexual exploitation

  • 7 in 10 young people who have been sexually exploited have also been reported missing  
  • 1 in 7 of the children who completed return home interviews with Missing People had been sexually exploited  


  • 1 in 4 trafficked children who are looked after in local authority care have gone missing  
  • Nearly 1 in 10 children who completed return home interviews with Missing People had been a victim of criminal exploitation 

Mental health

  • 1 in 5 children who completed return home interviews with Missing People disclosed information about mental health issues  
  • 1 in 10 was at risk of self-harm  
  • 4% were at risk of suicide  

New campaign 

The Charity Catch22 has launched a new campaign to coincide with International Missing Children’s Day. The charity, which runs a number of Child Exploitation and Missing services across England is making a call for a National Child Exploitation Strategy that would bring together the different forms of exploitation, specifically addressing child criminal exploitation and County Lines, and including Missing.

The organisation says that many professionals and members of the public frequently under-estimate the level and range of risks to children who go missing. This lack of concern leads to a failure to make early interventions.

The charity says that that when the same child goes missing for a few hours on repeated occasions, many families and agencies do not follow up, their main reaction being one of relief that the child has returned and is physically unharmed. However, going missing from home or from care can often be an important indicator that someone is becoming involved in child exploitation, often being groomed to be part of County Lines drug dealing operations. By the time organisations realise what is happening, a child may be deeply involved in criminal activity.

Catch22 recognises the importance of the recently published Child Sexual Abuse strategy and is calling for a national approach to child exploitation which recognises the crossover between child criminal exploitation (CCE), child sexual exploitation (CSE)and children who go missing. It  also wants to see updated statutory guidance for all professionals and says that a new national strategy should:

  • Incorporate other UK national strategies, including Child Sexual Abuse, Modern Day Slavery, Domestic Abuse.
  • Provide a legal definition of CCE
  • Recognise the links between CCE, CSE, missing children and county lines
  • Make provision for regular, up to date CCE training and awareness raising for practitioners and parents and carers.

The charity acknowledges that there are a number of strategies and policies around these issues but says that any are out of date and do not reflect the constant changes in the way that County Lines dealing and child sexual exploitation are organised with digital recruitment a key new issue.

The charity’s Director of Young People and Families summed up the issue:

“County lines, child criminal exploitation, child sexual exploitation, and children missing from home are too often talked about as separate issues. These tags are all symptoms, not causes, and we know from our experience that they are all inextricably linked. The focus should be on the vulnerability of young children, building awareness of risks, prioritising resilience, and doing everything we can to safely get a young child out of such dangerous situations.”