Editorial : Missing Children

This is a difficult subject to get one’s head round. In the first place, if a child truly goes missing, there is the awful period of apprehension and fear felt by the family while the searching goes on, and then there is the grief of loss if a body is found, or the lingering uncertainty if there is no news, or the joy if the child returns. All of them are powerful emotions, possibly life-changing. These events test relationships and personalities. Those of us who have not lost a child for more than a few minutes cannot really know what the experience is like for parents or siblings who go through it.

At the time of writing there is still no news of Shannon Matthews from Dewsbury, a nine-year-old girl, who was last seen after she left school on Tuesday 19 February. The Police have mounted a massive hunt, and neighbours in their hundreds have shown solidarity by joining in. The loss of one child is recognised as important by the whole community.

The individuals behind the numbers

Then one has to offset this experience against the Children’s Society figures. They quote facts such as 100,000 missing children in the United Kingdom every year. How does this square up with the massive hunt when a single girl goes missing in Dewsbury? The answer is that there are different levels of alarm.

The absence of a little girl who has never run away from home before is treated as particularly serious. But if a teenager who is about to leave care absents himself from a children’s home, the staff may have to inform the Police as a matter of form, but the level of concern is a good deal less, especially if he has made a habit of wandering off as the fancy takes him, or if it is known that he always heads for his mate’s house.

There are some children for whom running away is a regular pastime. This does not mean that their behaviour should not be treated seriously as they may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, but the significance depends on the interpretation. Some children may be running to somewhere or some person – trying to get home to their mothers because of home sickness, for example. Others may be trying to escape from somewhere or somebody – a carer who is abusing them, for instance. A smaller number seem to lead chaotic lives and feel the need to be restlessly on the move; for them it is the process of running rather than the starting point or the goal which is significant.

The Children’s Society figures are frightening, but to understand them, we need to take them apart. How long were children missing? Did they go to friends or relatives? Are they regular runners, swelling the figures? How mature and self-reliant are they? It is a complex subject, and we must not take it that the absence of every one of the 100,000 carries the same risk as that of Shannon Matthews.

More work to be done

Yet the risk is still there. Even in a country which values every child there are tragic losses such as that of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells from Soham in August 2002. There is the unanswered question of what happened to Madeleine McCann in Portugal. And now there is the ghastly news that children’s bodies are being unearthed at Haut la Garenne, formerly a children’s home. If we are a caring society which values the individual, how did children go missing in the tight-knit community of Jersey without anyone noticing?

We have come a long way from the era of Thomas Coram, when foundlings died in the gutter, or from the days of Oliver Twist, whose author gave us the term Dickensian for terrible social conditions. But there is still more to be done, as the Children’s Society argues. Any missing child is vulnerable, and while children are still running away, there is work to be done, finding them, finding out from each one why he or she runs, protecting them and helping each one find an answer to the causes of their running.

This is an important subject. It is a subject which tugs at the heart, but it is also one which needs cool appraisal and a balanced evaluation of the real scope of the problem in planning how to deal with it.

1 thought on “Editorial : Missing Children”

  1. Then there are those missing from home as they know it whether family or foster home as their parents have gone thru and may have had illness(stroke heart failure ir seizures,drowning or some other calamity)and have forgotten them and are residing in a multitude of places…hospital,residential homes and if they are lucky foster placements.
    They may visit and hardly say a word about it…especially if they have LD and or Autism or try and talk and be misinterpreted.
    They themselves may understand the forget and go thru syndrome themselves quite well…there sepcial needs teachers and staff go thru most years with them and they remember!

    They get to 18 Years and need of behavioural support and those around feel sorry for them over and over about their lost parents…but their parents grieve too as they can only afford 2 up 2 downs and when they get back they have not got the room or have the finances to take on the large family they have had and forgotten.

    Over to the MH services and the government to finance…no often the Mh services do not talk to the parents even if they have psychiatrists and psychologists and know something of what has happened…they give them mental health conditions to challenge just for experiencing De ja vu and the recurrent voices from the past.

    You must realise the expense of illness yourselves….but the pain of going thru for any parent is immence…they have lost families too.


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