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Campaign to unlock secrets of people who go missing

When Laura’s daughter asked about her grandparents, Laura said they were dead, killed in an accident she preferred not to discuss. “It is a terrible, horrible, lie,” Laura admits. “My daughter will inevitably discover the truth and when she does I don’t think she’ll ever forgive me.”

Despite her fears, Laura has repeated the story to her friends, her partner and his family. One lie has led to another and now, she admits, her life is built on deception. “I exist on a cliff edge. I’m very frightened. I have constructed my life on something that will inevitably crumble.”

The truth is that Laura’s parents are not dead but living 175 miles away; a train journey of two hours.

Since the night 12 years ago when Laura tiptoed down the stairs of her family home and shut the door behind her, she has neither seen nor spoken to her parents. She has no intention of doing so again. She has never told anyone about her past before, and does not give her real name.

Approximately 327,000 missing person reports – 110,000 of them concerning adults – are made to UK police each year. It amounts to almost 900 reports a day.

Despite the numbers, though, the world of the “missing” is shrouded in mystery: there is no research into why adults choose to go missing, how they disappear, where they go, and why they do, or do not, come back.

That, however, is about to change. Monday marks the nationwide launch of the first project, in the UK and internationally, to examine the hidden, secret, landscape of adults who choose to go missing.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the project, entitled Geographies of Missing People, is a collaboration between experts at Glasgow and Dundee Universities, the Metropolitan police service and Grampian police.

For more than two years researchers have traced and interviewed “missing” people. They are now using a website to ask those with experience of being missing to post their story. “This is a nationwide call for the missing to tell their stories,” said Hester Parr, principal investigator in the project. “There is no organisation that represents adults who choose to go missing. They have no way of being in contact with each other and so can find it very difficult to make sense of what has happened. This is a chance for those without a voice to tell their story.”

Parr and her colleagues spoke at length to families, police, police-based researchers, forensic scientists, academics and representatives of Missing People, an independent UK charity.

In a field parched of evidence-based research, the project has hit a nerve. The UK Missing Persons Bureau, the Police National Search Centre, and the National Policing Improvement Agency, say the findings will be used to train police, inform government policy and design services to support those who disappear and their families.

In the next few months there will also be conferences in the UK, Brussels and US for police officers to get together alongside researchers, families, and people who have returned.

Parr said police so far had relied “on the slightly nebulous, professional, hunches that come from years of experience”.

He added: “The lack of research means that those who go missing have no guidance on how to let their families know they’re okay or how to return home. Families also find it difficult to know what to do [or how to talk about the situation] when someone comes home.”

Many of the 216,000 individuals of all ages who go missing every year are resolved by police; just 2,500 people remain untraced more than a year after they disappear.

But that can still mean people do not return home and that families are not told if their loved one is alive or safe.

A closed case simply means the police are confident that no crime took place.

Few of the missing people traced by the Missing People charity do choose to go home. “Instead the missing person is able to rebuild relationships without their family finding out where they live, or being in direct contact with them,” said Martin Houghton-Brown, chief executive of the charity. “It doesn’t mean happy families but it enables people to accept someone has gone.

Laura, for example, only reluctantly agreed that the police could tell her parents she was alive. “It wasn’t that I wanted, or want, to hurt them, but I couldn’t bear it any longer and I still feel the same.”

Laura was 21 when she found she was pregnant. Her boyfriend of two years said he wanted nothing to do with a baby, and her parents said an abortion was her only option. She bought a train ticket to a neighbouring county, rented a room and got a pub job. She lived day to day, waiting for the police to knock on her door and force her to go back.

When she tried to pay her first month’s rent, she found her bank account frozen. The bank said she had been reported missing, and needed to talk to the police. “I thought they would make me go home,” she said.

But they didn’t. They gave her a cup of tea, told her she had the right to go missing, and asked her permission to tell her parents she was safe, but that she was not going back.

Laura is tormented by the decision she made. She always orders extra copies of her daughter’s photographs in case she sees her parents again. She has a big box of letters she has written to them too. “I try to explain,” she said. “But I never get it right. I feel very guilty, ashamed. I hate that I have deprived my parents of a relationship with their granddaughter, and her with them. Still to this day it makes me wonder what sort of person I am.

“I’m on antidepressants. I rarely sleep. I don’t let anyone get too close to me. But despite all that I’m desperate not to go back. I love the life I’ve built. I live in fear of it being taken away from me.”

Joe Apps, manager of the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s UK missing persons bureau, said there was a range of reasons for adults disappearing, including relationships, financial problems, addiction and mental health problems.

There is, he said, a dearth of solid information to help police trace those who could be at risk. “We only solve five to seven of the 30 to 40 cases we handle each month,” he admitted. “We appreciate that’s a very small number but this is a mysterious world we know very little about. This new project is a sign that we are entering a new era in missing adults.”

The only specialist research centre concerned with missing people in the UK, the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, at the University of Portsmouth, estimated that an average investigation costs from £1,325 to £2,415: roughly three times more than a violent crime or robbery, and four times more than a burglary.

But Houghton-Brown emphasises that the urge to disappear can be positive. “We need to be more open as a society [to the fact that] people need to take breathing space. Sometimes people need to take time out to deal with stuff. But they need to know how to do that safely.”

Rebecca chose to go missing, aged 22, to escape her bullying father. She stayed away for two and a half years before the death of an uncle prompted her return. “Going missing was the last resort but it gave me time to deal with my own issues. I still sometimes have the urge to go missing again. If you’ve done it once and survived, the temptation is always there.”