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One third of young people who go missing stay with strangers and put themselves at great risk, finds major new study

Posted on 5 March 2003

A new report published today in partnership with the National Missing Persons Helpline charity presents the findings of the most extensive study of missing persons ever undertaken in the UK. It found that going missing was highly risky for young people. Almost a third stayed with a stranger and 2 out of 5 slept rough. 1 in 8 was physically hurt and 1 in 9 sexually assaulted while they were away.

The study, carried out by researchers at the University of York, also found that over a third of the young people had no help at all while they were away. Many reported being unaware of services available to help them or were afraid of using services that might return them to the situations that they had left. Only a minority felt that they were happier than they had been before they ran away.

"Some nights I stayed at some boys' houses because it was better than sleeping on the streets. After I was sexually assaulted it didn't matter what I had to do to get off the streets. I'd been forced to do it before it didn't make any difference. I wish there was somewhere I could have stayed where I didn't have to do this."

The study, which drew on information about nearly 2,000 adults and children who had gone missing and consulted directly with them, also found that going missing was risky for adults. Over one third had felt themselves to be in danger at some point while they were missing. Over two thirds of those who had stayed in a hostel and four fifths of those who had slept rough reported having been in danger at some point. Despite the risks involved, nearly half reported that they had not attempted to seek help while they were missing.

Both adults and young people reported that if communication had been better in their families or if they had received advice, counselling or mediation before leaving they might not have gone missing.

Running away never helps people solve their problems. I realised that when it was too late... If you meet the right people you will be OK, like I was, but most of the time you end up sleeping rough. They should have people that talk to us, so we can clear it out, because in our eyes the only way out is to run away.

The study showed that people of any age can go missing, from very young children to people as old as 90. Among adults, men (67%) were much more likely to go missing than women (37%), while teenage girls were more likely to go missing than teenage boys.

Reasons for going missing also varied widely but the vast majority, 70% for young people and 64% for adults, went missing deliberately due to the breakdown of family relationships, to escape accumulated problems, including domestic violence, and due to mental health problems. Just 1% of adults went missing as a result of becoming a victim of crime or force by others. 8% of young people disappeared as a result of parental abduction or being thrown out of the family home.

Co-author Nina Biehal said:

"Thousands of people are reported missing each year. Going missing entails serious costs both to the missing person and to those they leave behind, while the social costs of doing nothing about this issue may be considerable. The findings relating to young people who go missing are particularly worrying given their vulnerability while away from safe adult care."

The report highlights the need for:

  • improved access to information about local and national services for missing people and their families
  • support and mediation services to respond to the build up of tension within families and suggest alternative strategies for managing family conflict and other stresses
  • more extensive support services to missing people and their families to offer advice, mediation (if desired) and practical support to reduce risk
  • follow-up support for young runaways who return home and strategies to reduce their exposure to risk
  • improved awareness by statutory and voluntary services to alert them to the factors that may prompt people to go missing and to the groups who may be most at risk
  • better links between statutory and voluntary agencies to develop more integrated policy and service responses for missing people

Notes to editors:

  • Lost from view: Missing persons in the UK by Nina Biehal, Fiona Mitchell and Jim Wade is published by The Policy Press. The authors are all researchers in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York.
  • The report is available from: Marston Book Services, Tel: 01235 465500. Price £15.99 (plus £2.75 p&p).
  • For further information, please contact:
  • Communications Office on 01904 432029.
  • Jim Wade on Tel: 01904 434 722 (Mon, Tue and Fri) The National Missing Persons Helpline Press Office: 020 8392 4510/11/12
  • For further information and a review copy, please contact: Helen Bolton at The Policy Press. Tel: 0117 954 6802 or email: helen.bolton@bristol.ac.uk
  • The National Missing Persons Helpline is a national charity which helps to search for missing people and supports their families.
  • 100,000 to 250,000 missing persons reports are made to the police each year. The National Missing Persons Helpline handles 10,000 cases a year. 77,000 young people under the age of 16 are likely to run away for the first time each year. Most people go missing intentionally due to a breakdown in their relationship with partners or parents. Among those found alive, only 20% return to their families or partners. Among the small number found dead, half commit suicide and a third die due to harm or accident.

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153