'It's a daily heartache' - Britain's 'prolific' missing persons issue affecting 2 million people

Many people sympathise with the loved ones of those who go missing - but the true realities of enduring this loss is profound and can leave those impacted grieving for decades. Credit: Pexels/Ivan Samkov/Kindel Media

By ITV News content producer Kaisha Langton

By the time you have finished reading this article, an estimated 11 people in the UK will have gone missing - with 132 people left feeling impacted by these disappearances.

Statistics from the charity Missing People show that one person in the UK goes missing every 90 seconds.

This means 170,000 people are reported missing every year – about 70,000 of whom are children.

For every one of those individuals, an average of at least 12 other people are affected in some way, according to the Australian study Missing Persons: Incidence, Issues and Impacts - which means 2.04 million people are impacted by missing persons each year in the UK.

Professor Karen Shalev Greene is an missing persons expert. Credit: University of Portsmouth

Missing person experts believe the real number could be much higher than this - indicating "a prolific problem", according to Professor Karen Shalev Greene, director of the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons, at the University of Portsmouth.

Speaking of the estimated 12 people impacted by every missing person, she said: "We can only begin to understand how big the problem really is and how many people are affected every year. But we just don’t talk about it - it’s hiding under the radar."

The heartbreak for the families left behind

One family who never thought they would be forced to encounter this problem was the Nettles family.

In November, it will be 27 years since 16-year-old Damien Nettles vanished on a night out in Cowes on the Isle of Wight.

Damien Nettles was last seen in November 1996. Credit: Family photo

His family have been left devastated by his disappearance and struggling with the unanswered questions they have. 

His mother, Valerie Nettles, shared the true nightmare of existing in a state of uncertainty, telling ITV News how she resides in two worlds, with one foot firmly planted in 1996 - when she last saw her son.

She said: "The pain of it takes your breath away - it’s literally breathtaking.

"When someone first goes missing, it's like when you lose a child in the store.

"You’re immediately hit with panic and all you can imagine are the worst possible things that could ever have happened."

Mrs Nettles has been left "living in limbo" and constantly waiting for answers.

Damien with his father Ed before his disappearance. Credit: Family photo

She added: "You have to balance things, but it took me a long time to get to a point where I could do that. 

"For a whole year, I wouldn’t leave the house - until I got a mobile phone and was more able to feel I could without missing news of Damien."

She describes the last 27 years where she’s constantly scanning the crowds in the back of news reports - looking for a face she might recognise as her son.

Mrs Nettles said: "It’s a desperate situation to be in - but I’ve learnt to live with it, in it and around it.

"He’s this huge space in my life and he’s still there."

Having to continue her life and still carry on for her husband and three other children meant she could not fall apart completely, but it’s not been easy, she says.

Two-year-old Damien. Credit: Family photo

In another case, mother-of-four and grandmother-of-nine Sandra Gant disappeared on 15 November 2003 from Clacton-on-Sea.

Her eldest daughter, Carrie, shared details from a letter her mother sent her two years before she disappeared and a response she drafted after her mother went missing with Missing People.

Carrie's response reads: "In our torment, these are the questions we are left with running around in our minds…Could we have held her tighter? Shown her more just how much we needed her?

Sandra Gant disappeared aged 48 from Clacton-on-Sea. Credit: Family handout

"Told her how much we love her… The truth is we did all we could and all we knew that was within our own understanding at our age and experience in life.

"Our mental health is like a delicate cloak we wear; worn, torn, battered and bruised. Emotional whirlwinds have ripped through its threads!"

Ambiguous loss and its relevance to the families of missing people

Ambiguous loss, a term coined by Dr Pauline Boss, describes a loss which is not clear. 

It could involve a missing person, who is presumed dead - but whose body has not been found. 

Without the physical presence of a body, there is an additional layer to the grief and pain because there is no resolution or closure to enable a person to move on, Professor Shalev Greene said.

She added the pain and torment are further intensified by the person holding onto hope of a happy reunion with their loved one, learning what happened in the first place or why they went missing.

Fighting back tears, Mrs Nettles said: "When someone passes away and you know they have died, it’s horrendous, but at least it’s finished - you’ve got an ending of sorts. 

"We don’t have that - I don’t have a place to go and see Damien, I don’t have anything.

"I just have nothing left of this child who we had for 16 years and now we’ve lost for 26 years."

Damien and his family before apparently vanished without a trace. Credit: Family photo

She is tormented by what could have happened to him.

Mrs Nettles said: "I have those thoughts. You just wonder, did he drown? Was he drowning and crying for us?

"Trying to get help and struggling. I'm left with those horrible thoughts of what could have happened to Damien and I have to deal with them every day."

She added: "I’m 70 now and I can’t help but wonder if I am ever going to get information about Damien before it’s too late.

"Just living in limbo, it’s a daily heartache. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t ponder all of this.

"My life’s not been normal - 26 years of life which haven’t been normal."

Missing people: The key demographics

The police definition of missing is "anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established will be considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed".

Missing incidents compared with census ethnicity data. Credit: Missing People/Listen Up

Of the 170,000 people who are reported missing each year in the UK, around 70,000 of these are children.

Looked-after children are at high risk of being reported missing - with those in care most at risk. 

Josie Allan, senior policy and partnerships manager at Missing People, said nationally one in 200 children go missing - but that's one in 10 for care-experienced children.

Individuals from healthcare settings are also disproportionately reflected in rates of missing.

The reasons adults go missing taken from research by charity Missing People. Credit: ITV News/Canva

Mental health issues are a key risk and cause for adults who go missing.

Ms Allan said: "With children, mental health is absolutely still a key factor and worryingly, we know from some of our research, that quite a few children will go missing when considering self-harm and a small proportion will actually be thinking about taking their own life."

Other key reasons include those in a moment of crisis or having to escape kind of relationship problems, domestic abuse and violence.

She added dementia, homelessness and rough sleeping are other key factors. 

Exploitation is a huge issue for children - as well as grooming and exploitation. 

The reasons children and young people go missing taken from research by charity Missing People. Credit: ITV News/Canva

A recent report from Missing People found black and Asian people are less likely to be found by police than cases involving white people.

The research showed black and Asian children are also likely to be missing for longer.

Discussing this research Ms Allan said: "We’ve known for years that black people are specifically more likely to be reported missing - those statistics are available and evident in national data. 

"But there’s never been any real kind of interrogation of why or any more detail into this which is why we decided to investigate further."

A graphic from charity Missing People showing the over-representation of black people in missing incidents. Credit: Missing People/Listen Up

The report painted a "worrying picture" for black and Asian communities and called for action.

But Ms Allan said more research is needed to understand why racial disproportionalities exist.

She said: "The data shows there might be systemic racism or systemic issues in terms of relationships between support agencies and black and Asian communities, but we can't really say for sure why those disparities exist. 

"So now we're calling for more research to actually understand why black people are more likely to go missing and why black and Asian people are facing these disparities in the statistics."

The statistics concerning rates of missing white people. Credit: Missing People/Listen Up

Missing people and media bias

Race is not the only differential factor when it comes to missing people figures.

Professor Shalev Greene said there is bias in the media towards white women and her team is currently working on a project looking into this.

She said: "The media generally likes the pretty white woman or white child. 

"There’s definitely racial and gender bias at play - the more innocent a person is perceived to be - the more impact their stories have and the more people are moved.

"Extreme stories prove very impactful - the more grotesque, it is almost the more interesting they are. 

"Sometimes these missing person stories lead to criminal stories - then we have a continuation of that plot almost."

Ms Allan said "missing white woman" syndrome - as it’s been called - can have a heartbreaking impact on families.

She said: "I think it's devastating for a lot of families who feel like their loved one is not prioritised or cared about as much and ultimately might be less likely to be found because we're not as aware of them."

Damien Nettles missing poster. Credit: Missing People

Mrs Nettles says she felt ignored by police because her son was a teenage boy.

Remembering when she reported her son’s disappearance to the police, she said: "The police told me: 'Boys at 16 and that age - they do this all the time. He’s probably done a runner and has gone off to lick his wounds, but he’ll be back by tea time'.

"But I had no reason to suspect Damien would ever want or think of going. You never 100% know your child, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t do that."

How to tackle the issue

The missing person experts ITV News spoke to said more work to improve society’s approach, treatment and behaviour towards missing people and their families is needed.

Former British police officer and missing persons expert Charlie Hedges, who has 26 years' worth of experience in this field, said: "On a positive note, over my years in policing things have improved enormously.

"There’s a much better attitude towards many things - but I’m still often struck that we’re still trying to overcome issues that I first faced when I began in this area."

Charlie Hedges. Credit: charliehedgesadvisory.com

He believes a deeper understanding of missing people is needed, especially around the issues of harm around those who go missing.

He said: "When a case is reported, you have to understand risk and how serious the question of risk is to determine how quickly to respond and what type of response and so on.

"In the longer term, we think about what harm has the person suffered - and if you look at the official data, because that's what's recorded by the police in a missing person report, it's probably between one to 1-2% suffer harm because that's what gets written down. 

"But it's just nonsense because every person who goes missing suffers harm of some sort and it's something that needs to be better understood."

He argues most missing people will have experienced harm, but upon their return, they are unlikely to want to open up and share those difficulties with the police.

Instead, trained professionals need to work with those impacted to win trust before individuals feel ready to open up.

Ms Allan says work to destigmatise the judgement around people going missing is crucial. 

Missing People spokesperson Josie Allan. Credit: Missing People

She said: "We shouldn’t be judgemental of people going missing. It’s often a coping mechanism or a response to a really negative situation.

"Responses and understanding of missing needs to be a focus in society. It deserves to not be sensationalised, but instead, there should be a focus on an individual’s risk of harm."

Greater availability and access to mental health services for instance is key, Ms Allan added, in addition to treating those suffering with kindness and compassion.

She said: "As a society, we’re trying to talk more kindly about mental health, but it seems like when people reach burnout point and they feel like they have no other option than to run away or potentially drop some of their responsibilities, there can be very little empathy sometimes.

"We need to remember these people need help and not criticism."

What to do if your loved one goes missing and where you can find help?

If you think someone is missing, it is important to respond to this quickly, especially if you think that they are at risk of harm.

You can find advice about what to do here and information is provided by other organisations and can be found by following the below web links.

The first point of contact should be the police, but other organisations may also be involved.

You can find additional support from the following:

UK Missing Persons Unit - which provides advice in relation to reporting someone missing and has a section dedicated to this.

Missing People - a charity that provides people who can help you, whether you’re currently a missing person or you are trying to find someone who’s missing.

Missing Person's Information Hub - This website provides links to useful information and services to enable our network to connect and share knowledge and experience.

Alzheimer's Society - a charity that can provide you with useful advice if you encounter someone who appears lost and confused.

Locate International - a charity offering a free and independent review and investigation service for the families of missing people.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office - a government department responsible for dealing with UK citizens who go missing abroad.

Salvation Army - a service where you can apply for assistance when there are particular risks to a person and in situations when the the police are not normally able to undertake missing person cases that concern the tracing of lost family members.

The Children's Society - an organisation designed to provide useful help and advice for those aged 18 years.

International Child Abduction and Contact Unit - a government organisation and part of the Official Solicitors Office responsible for the return of a child taken abroad from England and Wales against your wishes, to make contact with them or to enforce a court order overseas.

If you are considering running away or leaving home you should try to contact Missing People as they can discuss your options and help you to keep safe. The charity says they will not judge you or tell you what to do.

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