Thousands of children repeatedly went missing from care homes last year, leaving them at risk of sexual abuse, a leading charity has said.
The NSPCC revealed that 7,885 teenagers and children vanished from care in England and Wales last year, with at least 2,959 going missing more than once, some 35 times.
Around 40% of the youngsters were aged 13 to 17, but some were as young as six.
Tom Rahilly from the charity said: “The state needs to be a parent for these children. If any other child went missing their parents would move heaven and earth to find them and to understand why they did it. It should be no different for young people in care.
“Repeatedly going missing should be a big warning sign as this kind of behaviour can put them at serious risk of harm such as grooming or sexual exploitation. But we have to understand why they are doing it.
“Children go missing for many reasons – they’re being bullied, they’ve been put in a home miles from their family and they miss them and their friends, or they just don’t trust staff enough to tell them where they are.
“Many will have been abused before being placed in care and they need a lot of attention and protection. Going missing for just an hour or two can be long enough for them to come to harm.”
The charity is calling for repeatedly going missing from care to be fully acknowledged as sign that a child is at greater risk of harm.
It also wants care staff to make sure that they listen to children about why they have gone missing rather than simply punishing them, and to work with police to stop children going missing and to return them to safety as quickly as possible.
The NSPCC made a Freedom of Information request to all the police forces in England and Wales to obtain the figures, and 29 out of 43 responded in full.
However the charity said that it is estimated that less than half of all missing cases of this kind are reported to police.
Figures from the Department of Education also differ drastically to those supplied by police, putting the number of missing children at fewer than 1,000, the NSPCC said.
Last month concerns were raised by children’s charities about changes to the way that police deal with missing people.
The plans could see the number of cases where officers are called out drop by a third.
Call handlers will class cases as either “absent”, when a person fails to arrive somewhere they are expected, or the more serious as “missing”, where there is a specific reason for concern.
Police deal with around 327,000 reports of missing people each year, the equivalent of around 900 a day, two-thirds of which involve children.
There is often a link between a child frequently going missing and falling prey to sexual abuse.
The NSPCC warned that the changes could put children at risk of being sexually exploited, while the Children’s Society claimed that pilots carried out were too short to prove the plans were safe.
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We welcome the NSPCC’s findings. It is simply unacceptable that some residential care homes do not respond immediately when young people go missing. That is why we are taking immediate action to reform the system, so all homes are safe and secure places where vulnerable children can get the support they need.
“We have already changed the rules so that Ofsted can share the names and addresses of care homes with the police to better protect children who go missing. For the first time, we will also begin collecting national data on all children who run away, not just those missing for 24 hours.
“Decisions about whether to place children at a significant distance from their local community will be taken at a much more senior level as a result of a new duty on local authorities.
“Additionally a new regulation will mean children’s homes should not be open in areas that are unsafe, and children’s home providers will be required to work with the police and LA to consider the risks. We are also taking steps to improve the skills of care home workers so they are better able to identify risks and take action before children run away.”
Chief Constable Pat Geenty from the Association of Chief Police Officers said: “We know that regularly going missing from home can be a warning sign of child sexual exploitation.
“It can also signify that children and young people may be at risk of other forms of abuse, becoming a victim of crime or involved in criminal activity.
“This is why we have acted to improve our response to risk assessing and responding to missing person cases.”