Police forces in England and Wales are to stop sending officers to every report of a missing person, to focus only on people whose disappearance is out of character or thought to be at risk. But David Tucker, from the NSPCC, said the charity fears the new definitions could put children at risk:
We are very concerned that the new definition of 'missing persons' will put vulnerable children at risk of being groomed and sexually exploited.
The length of time a child goes missing is irrelevant because they can fall into the clutches of abusers very quickly.
Children go missing for a variety of reasons; they may be bullied, abused or are generally unhappy. But whatever the reason, this problem must be taken seriously.
We expect all professionals including the police to invest the right amount of time and take the necessary action to protect all children as soon as they go missing.
Regardless of whether the police classify a child or young person as missing or as absent, it must be recognised that there is always a wider safeguarding issue.
Current evidence suggests that it is important for police to ensure that a missing persons co-ordinator is in place to monitor patterns and identify risk, that return home interviews are provided for missing and absent children and young people, and that police work closely with statutory and voluntary sector partners across the different categories.
– Jo Youle, Missing People chief executive
Figures from the pilot showed that under the new system around a third of missing people cases are likely to be classed as "absent", and therefore officers will not attend. In one force 31% of cases were classified as absent, and in another 39%.
Whenever we get a call and someone is reported missing, we would normally dispatch a police officer, irrespective of the circumstances of the case. So you see that's a huge demand on police resources.
What we're asking for now is that the care homes act as responsible parents, do the initial work that's required in terms of trying to find out where the missing individual is, and then if they have concerns to ring the police.
There is an element about reducing bureaucracy, but I am convinced that the change will enable us to focus resources to protect those children that we need to protect.
Police forces across the country will change the way that they deal with missing people and stop officers getting called out to around a third of missing people cases.
The aim is to free up officers' time and to improve the way forces deal with children who repeatedly go missing from care, and might fall prey to sexual abuse.
Under the plans, call handlers will class missing persons cases as either "absent", when a person simply does not arrive where they are expected to be, or "missing", where there is a specific reason for concern.