Recognising the Risks and Harms for Repeat Missing Children from Different Residential Environments through a Child and Practitioner Lens

This project aims to co-create interventions to reduce the number of times children repeatedly go missing.

Teenage boy stood with arms crossed alone in a field. Photo by Lesli Whitecotton on Unsplash.

Children who repeatedly go missing are at risk of different harms while missing, including sexual and criminal exploitation. These harms may be experienced, understood, and prevented differently depending on the child’s residence (e.g. foster care, kinship care, with parents/guardians), their personal needs (e.g. neurodiversity), and sociodemographic factors (e.g. race, age).

This project, co-created with children and practitioners, aims to identify suitable support and reduction interventions for repeat missing children across two areas in England.


63,866 children were reported missing in 2021/22, in a total of 173,369 incidents. The volume of missing children poses challenges for multiple agencies, including police, social services and the NHS. It is estimated that this costs more than £500 million a year.

Previous work into repeat missing children has focused prominently on those missing from residential environments, and their risk of sexual exploitation. These studies overlook the differences between children’s residential environments, such as whether they live in foster care or with parents or guardians. They also fail to capture their personal needs and demographics, which could pose heightened risks for being missing, and the harms experienced. All these factors are indicators for repeat missing episodes which pose significant concern for a child’s wellbeing and safety.

The reasons for children repeatedly going missing, the harms experienced, and support upon return are complex, multi-faceted, and unique to each child. One-size-fits-all approaches to reducing occurrences and safeguarding children are not effective. Yet, no other strategy has been proposed.

Although tailored interventions may be appropriate, it is impossible to determine what these consist of when the problem has not been explored from a child and practitioner’s view.

This project incorporates the views of children and practitioners to co-create tailored interventions which not only reduce occurrences of being missing, but also ensure children do not feel criminalised or judged upon return. Doing this ensures there is more effective partnership working with those responsible for the child, and blame is not attributed to the parties responsible for failing to reduce occurrences.


This project seeks to co-create tailored interventions for children at risk of going missing multiple times, incorporating child and practitioner voices for effective strategies.

The objectives are:

  • To determine how practitioners assess the risk of children going missing, and the impact that this has on their responses to prevent missing episodes.
  • To identify how children interpret their missing episodes and recognise the risks that might occur before their disappearance.
  • To determine how practitioners recognise harm, and the mechanisms available to safeguard children from future missing episodes.
  • To identify the children’s recognition of harms, and when these may be present during their missing episodes.
  • To assess the effectiveness of current preventative measures (e.g. Return Home Interviews [RHIs]), through practitioner and children’s experiences.
  • To identify the barriers children face in accessing suitable support upon their return and reasons for their disengagement.
  • To identify the barriers and challenges experienced by practitioners when trying to support and safeguard children through the currently accepted processes (e.g. RHIs).


This is a multi-phased project that will look at data from police forces on the prevalence of repeat missing children, completed safe and well checks, and return home interviews. Collaborating with two forces in England, this project seeks to determine the prevalence of missing children, reasons for them going missing, and children’s risks, harms, and activities while missing.

The later phases of the project include semi-structured one-to-one interviews with children experiencing repeat missing episodes. Narrative Analysis will allow “stories” from the participants to be identified, including how they have made sense of their missing episodes, support, and interventions upon return. Focus groups with practitioners (police, social workers, residential care staff) adopt a Participatory Action Research and Reflection (PARR) approach to identify positive and negative experiences when working with repeat missing children. Two forms of qualitative analysis – Conversation and Thematic Analysis – will ensure various facets of working practices, policies, and strategies for repeat missing children are captured within the group discussions.

Combining the interviews with children and practitioner focus groups will lead to interventions being developed. The project incorporates child and practitioner feedback throughout this stage, ensuring effective implementations for all participants.


Lead investigator


  • Petra Salisbury (Leeds Beckett University)
  • Rebecca O’Keefe (Leeds Beckett University)
  • Professor Sharon Vincent (Leeds Beckett University)
  • Bethany McCarthy (Leeds Trinity University)