Police are dealing with more than 20 missing children a day, as official figures show numbers have jumped two thirds in four years fuelled by exploitation by county lines gangs and rising mental ill health.
Data to be published this month by the National Crime Agency (NCA) shows that police dealt with 199,634 missing children incidents in 2018/19, a 66 per cent rise on the 120,000 in 2014/15. That is equivalent to 23 incidents an hour or 550 a day.
Children - the majority of whom were aged between 12 and 17 - accounted for 62 per cent of all missing people incidents as the biggest charity dealing with cases said one in four calls to it now relate to criminal or sexual exploitation.
“It is a really big issue both in terms of children being sexually exploited and being exploited by gangs to transport and sell drugs via county lines which is one model of that,” said Susannah Drury, Director of Policy and Development of the charity Missing People.
The figures cover “high level” cases where there is judged to be a risk which is “life threatening and/or traumatic” and show that total numbers of missing people of all ages have risen 63 per cent from 196,560 in 2013/14 to 320,715.
“Going missing is evidence that something is seriously wrong in people’s lives. The overall reason for the increase is closely connected to many issues that are increasing - mental health, relationship and financial problems are some of the most common reasons,” said Ms Drury.
“Mental health is an issue for children going missing, problems at home, bullying at school or being preyed on by people who go on to exploit them. It is a mirror of social issues happening in the UK at the moment.”
The charity is warning that the extra mental health and financial pressures from the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to an even bigger increase in missing children and adults.
Concerns have been raised by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary Sir Tom Winsor whose annual report highlighted South Wales Police’s 65 per cent increase in missing person cases over the past year and Northamptonshire Police forecast of a 43 per cent increase by 2022.
Of particular concern were children missing from care, which in previous years has accounted for about 45 per cent of cases and in Cambridgeshire alone accounted for 657 cases in just one year.
“Children missing from care homes are at particular risk of criminal exploitation, which can result in them becoming victims, offenders, or both,” said Sir Tom.
Catherine Hankinson, the National Police Chief Council’s (NPCC) lead for missing persons, said: “We are becoming increasingly aware of criminal exploitation of vulnerable young people.
“County lines are a part of that but there are other elements to criminal exploitation. Being missing and being vulnerable increases your risk. That makes you a target for criminals who might want to exploit you.
“It’s almost cyclical. Young vulnerable people will associate with friends, groups of people who might be then be part of that criminalisation or they might be at increased risk when they are with them. They go missing because they want to be part of that.”
She said there were intense coordinated efforts involving police, Government and local authorities to try to prevent and understand the scale of the problem, particularly focusing on vulnerable children who might go missing multiple times in a year.
The Missing People charity said there was evidence of increasing numbers of girls being exploited by county lines gangs as they sought more children who were less obvious as drug runners and could escape police scrutiny.
It said some of the increase could be accounted for by rising awareness of gangs like county lines and mental ill health as well as better recording methods but Ms Drury believed there was a real increase in prevalence.
Last year the NCA estimated the number of county lines networks at 2,000, nearly three times the previous estimate of 720, with a single line capable of making profits of £800,000 a year.