…is all over the airwaves at the moment, in the wake of a serious case review (after which lessons will no doubt be learned, gold standard best practice adopted, and many new and more complex forms introduced).
I’ve just been listening to Sir Peter Fahy squirming on BBC 5 Live as Victoria Derbyshire asked him over and over again how it was that his officers failed to take seriously those complaints which were made.
It’s a very good question, and one I’d be asking were my daughters involved.
Of course, my daughters wouldn’t be involved, because I know where they are and who they are with at all times, as – doubtless – do any parents reading this. That is the point, really. Yes, there were other factors, but young teenage girls cannot be abused (systematically) by anyone if their parents or carers (most of the victims having been in care) know where they are, and who they are with.
But as The Guardian says,
There was a lack of strategies to respond to frequent “runaways”, which allowed them to return to their abusers.
‘Frequent runaways’ is a bit throwaway, isn’t it? I can think of at least one simple ‘strategy’ for stopping kids from ‘frequently’ running away, which is, don’t let them. Unfortunately, for reasons not unconnected to lawyers and other experts, it seems it’s not that easy.
But what is the relevance of this to our books? Well, a number of them have explained frequent runaways and the problems they cause.
In Wasting Police Time, PC David Copperfield defines ‘MISPER Enquiries’ as:
Enquiries into missing persons – usually kids who have run away from care homes or school to play in the amusement arcades and drink cider in the park.
But why don’t the care home staff or teachers bar the door? PC Bloggs (Diary of an On-Call Girl, criminally under-rated) explains why in this story of a missing child:
I AM STILL in custody, waiting for Will to find me, when the radio pipes up once more.
‘Could you attend the Benucci Foundation. Colin Roach has gone missing again.’
The Benucci Foundation is a Care Home, providing twenty-four hour supervision of troubled under-16s, and the name of Colin Roach is more familiar to me than my own. He goes for a jaunt two or three times a week, and the staff at the home do little to prevent it.
One of the rules of the twenty–four hour supervision is that it is the police’s responsibility to keep track of the youngsters who live under it. Thus, when a Missing Person is reported, a police officer will be dispatched to the relevant home, where a five-page description and Risk Assessment will be completed. This is actually the most crucial part of the whole process, as without knowing whether the Person is classified as High, Medium or Low Risk we are unable to determine which rank of officer will be fired if they are found dead.
Luckily, we are proficient at finding them alive. Not only do we have the ability to telephone their family members and ask if they’ve seen them, but we’re also good at driving to their favourite haunts or texting them on their mobiles to ask them where they are.
These skills take many years to master and should not be attempted by civilians.
Most Missing Persons are regulars. They are usually in care or foster homes, and have poor criminal or behavioural records. They are between 13 and 16, they drink, smoke and do drugs, and they ain’t scared of no Feds.
All of these factors mean that their carer is under a legal responsibility to inform the police when the Person goes Missing, even if Missing just happens to be going down the shop for a Mars bar. No matter: the police delight in spending hours on pointless tasks, so we are more than happy to cruise the streets of Blandmore searching for these youngsters, and, when we find them, it’s always a joy to spend half an hour trying to persuade them to go home without any actual power to make them do so.
Colin is 13 and I have located him three times already this year. On each occasion I found him in the same place: back at the Foundation sitting in front of the television.
This time, we are shown in by Carlita, one of the live-in carers. She makes me a cup of tea and apologises for having to call us out.
‘So,’ I say. ‘Why did he go this time?’
‘He went for some fags. We usually let him have one after doing his homework, but he wanted one now. So he just left.’
I look at the front door, a sturdy-looking PVC thing with two bolts. ‘How did he get out?’
‘He opened the door.’
‘Did anyone try to stop him?’
‘We aren’t allowed to do that!’ She looks horrified at the suggestion. ‘If they become violent, we retreat.’
‘But couldn’t you just lock the door?’
‘We don’t lock them in,’ she says. ‘That might make them violent.’
Perhaps I have misunderstood the nature of the Foundation. I ask for a recap. ‘Why are kids here again?’
‘High risk offenders. Most of them have committed rapes or sexual assaults on younger kids. Colin raped a younger boy last year.’
‘And they aren’t in prison because… ?’
‘Well, most of them were also abused as kids,’ Carlita explains. ‘They’re not even sixteen, so it wouldn’t be fair to just chuck them in jail and throw away the key. They’re mixed-up kids.’
‘So let me get this straight: you have a house full of boys who have been victims of sexual assault, living in a house with boys who have committed sexual assaults?’
‘Well, they aren’t allowed in each others’ rooms.’
Colin is under a Supervision Order from the court and Carlita shows me the Order. It lays down in no uncertain terms that Colin is to stay indoors at the Benucci Foundation all day, except when escorted to school and back by staff or taken on outings authorised by staff. He is to abide by the rules of the house and is not allowed to be rude or threatening or to assault anyone.
‘So he breaks this Order every time he goes storming out?’ I ask.
She nods. ‘If he does it again he’ll be put in a high security home.’
Will takes out the paperwork. ‘He’s done it… let’s see… 30 times in the last three months.’
Sadly, this is no exaggeration. Colin and others like him really exist, as do their records of going ‘missing’.
She shrugs. ‘Well, like I say. One of these days he’ll be put in high security.’
While the sergeant is there, I trick him into signing his name on my Missing Person paperwork; that means it is now he who will be fired if Colin Roach is not found. Even as he realises what he has done, the radio controller interrupts us to inform me that Colin is now back at the Foundation and could I please go and lay eyes on him so the incident log can be closed.
Inspector Gadget (Perverting the Course of Justice) has the issue in his area, too:
CHARLIE is 14 years old, he lives in a care home and he’s vanished.
Charlie is a MISPER.
There are two types of missing persons.
The first type is persons who are actually missing.
They might be stressed husbands who left work four hours ago and haven’t come home. They might be mums with post-natal depression, or old people with Alzheimer’s, or kids who are playing in the park and have just forgotten the time. We don’t get many calls like this, and we take them very seriously indeed.
The second type of MISPER are persons who aren’t really missing at all – like Charlie.
In fact, in our area – as in any area – the vast majority of these cases fall into this category.
Most of them are wayward teenagers who have disappeared from one of the foster/children’s homes on our patch. They’re kids with no obvious future except crime, unemployment and poverty: disturbed, unwanted youngsters from broken homes, born to underclass parents who just drop them and never bother to pick them up again. Usually, mum or dad is in the middle of some drug or alcohol daze, or has a new partner who doesn’t want to know. The result is young boys and girls left to fend for themselves, out in the big wide world at the age of 10 or so. They end up in care, and they abscond very regularly – some of them several times a week – after being told by the staff that they can’t smoke cannabis, or can’t drink, or simply because they want to go and hang around in town with their mates. The staff watch them stroll away (they are not allowed to detain them), and then they call us.
They’re undoubtedly tragic, these kids, and they’d break your heart if you let them.
[E]very time Charlie vanishes, we ramp up an entire system.
How this starts is with a risk assessment.
In theory, this is to decide which of three levels of response we adopt: high, medium or low.
In practice, it’s really about getting some poor bastard’s name on it – usually that of a Duty Inspector like me – so that if and when things get bent out of shape they have someone to stick it to. Call me cynical, but that’s the way I see it.
Let’s go back to the theory. It sounds sensible: if someone is at high risk, let’s have a high level of response.
The problem is, what is ‘high risk’? If it means any kid who goes missing, you can forget it. A high level response requires a helicopter. It needs search dogs, a Gold command (Assistant Chief Constable or above) and incident command posts. It needs large teams of level two-trained officers – the specialists who you see on the TV news, dressed in white overalls carrying out painstaking, fingertip searches. Charlie’s always disappearing and he’s not alone in that: if we act like this for every kid who goes missing in our area every time they do it, I’m going to need eight helicopters a day. I will need hundreds of people. It’s impossible.
As for low risk… well, no-one is ever going to be low risk, are they? I mean, would you put that on a form if you were me?
So what happens is, we end up recording the vast majority of MISPERs as ‘medium’ risk (I think I’m supposed to make that judgment based on an e-learning package I did on the computer once). Hence, the entire, bureaucratic, time-consuming, box-ticking, arse-covering exercise that is the risk assessment is actually a big fat sham.
Medium risk doesn’t mean we just shrug our shoulders and don’t do much about it, though. There’s still a whole list of things that have to be done – at least 50 of them, on forms which are about eight pages long.
For instance, you have to:
- Search Charlie’s home and any outbuildings
- Check for any diaries, letters and calendars he might have, seize them and put them in evidence bags
- Question all people in the home.
- Carry out house-to-house enquiries locally and in areas of interest.
- Do an area search of the places that Charlie is known to frequent.
- Alert CCTV.
- Broadcast his disappearance to other officers.
- Get it on to the briefing.
- Put him on the Police National Computer as ‘locate-and-trace’.
- Go to his school – even though it’s long after dark, and he doesn’t go to school most days anyway.
- Visit his last two known addresses.
- Contact his family and friends, and physically go round and check for him there.
The list goes on for quite a while yet – and everything, of course, has to be written down and recorded in triplicate, just in case something bad does happen, so you and your bosses can prove you did all that was humanly possible to prevent it.
So I take two officers off my shift and put them to work on finding Charlie. They trawl the canal towpaths and the children’s playgrounds and the underpasses and all the hidden away places Charlie likes to meet up with his mates and they eventually find him, mildly pissed, lying in a rosebed next to the bandstand in the park.
By that stage, he’s quite happy to get a lift back to the home. They drop him off, knowing they’ll be out looking for him again within the next three or four days.
I could give you many, many examples. Mandy is another 14-year-old who also lives in a care home in one of our towns. She has an ‘Acceptable Behaviour Contract’ with the home: if she generally does as she’s told, once a week she’s allowed out to go and buy cigarettes. Yes, I know this is illegal but they have to work with what they’ve got; if they just say No to her, what’s going to happen? What sanctions do they have?
(One day, undoubtedly, Mandy will find a no-win-no-fee lawyer who will sue the local authority on her behalf for allowing her to smoke.)
She’s supposed to go to the local shop, or to her mother, or to whoever it is that provides her with the fags, and then come straight back. She gets half an hour for this, and every single time she doesn’t come back. Instead, she goes into town, nicks a load of make-up from Dorothy Perkins, swipes some vodka from the offie and spends the afternoon getting smashed with a load of older kids. All our medium risk responses grind into action and we get officers out looking for her. Sometimes we find her, other times she comes back of her own accord. Depending on how she’s feeling, it might be that night, but more often it’ll be a day or two later. The following week, we’ll go through the same thing all over again. And the week after that, ad nauseam, until they’re no longer juveniles.
As a normal person, unfamiliar with the way these things work, you are probably thinking that this all sounds a bit mad.
If she keeps going missing, why don’t the care home staff just ban her from going out in the first place? (Because she’ll ignore them and go anyway.)
Why don’t they lock the doors? (They aren’t allowed to.)
Why don’t they grab hold of her? (They don’t want to get done for assault.)
And Mandy and Charlie are but two of many. At any one time, I will have half a dozen of these cases on the go.
In other news, our office cat Harry had to be put down this week. He would usually be sitting on my desk looking disdainfully at me as I batter yet more nonsense into my keyboard; 16 years we’ve had him (and his brother Percy, until he died a couple of years back). It’s a terribly sad thing.
Still, the office dog is sleeping easier: