Missing children and young people

This advice provides information regarding children and young people subject to child protection involvement who go missing.
Document ID number 2359 , version 2, 14 August 2019.

See Missing children and young people - procedure for actions that must be undertaken.

If a missing persons report, Children’s Court search warrant, or missing persons media release is required please follow Missing persons report - advice, Missing persons report - procedure, Publication of identifying details - advice and Publication of identify details - procedure.

In addition to the responses to missing behaviour (seeking a warrant and making a missing person’s report to police) there must be an assessment of the child’s missing behaviour.

Children known to child protection and community service organisations (CSOs) or Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations (ACCOs) may engage in high risk behaviours including going missing. These behaviours, along with their personal histories of trauma can place children at increased risk of further harm. Children can have chronic missing episodes that vary in duration. Never assume that a child who has repeated episodes of missing but always returns to placement decreases the risk; in fact, at times this is evidence of increasing risk. Every episode of missing should be assessed, considered independently and cumulatively, and treated as a serious event. ‘These behaviours…should be understood as an attempt to cope with stress which requires a therapeutic response from professionals’ (Jackson, A. (2014), Literature review: Young people at high risk of sexual exploitation, absconding, and other significant harms, Melbourne: Berry Street Childhood Institute, p 42).


A child or young person is missing when:

  • The child or young person's whereabouts are unknown.

A child or young person is absent when:

  • The child or young person's whereabouts are known but their absence is not approved.

For the purpose of this advice, the term ‘missing’ includes when the child is absent. In either scenario, an assessment of risk is essential to determine the appropriate response.

Preventing missing behaviour in care

Where a young person enters care or commences a new placement, and there are identified risk issues related to missing behaviour, consider exploring the following questions with the care team and the young person to gather information that may help decrease the likelihood of future missing episodes. It is important to include the young person in elements of these discussions as young people are often able to identify some of the triggers, thoughts and feelings that impact on their behaviour and reflect on the effectiveness of response strategies.

  • Does the child or young person associate with peers who have a history of repeatedly going missing? Have previous responses been effective?
  • Does the young person have a history of police intervention for missing or other behaviour?
  • Does the child or young person have a known or suspected history or current concerns in relation to sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, mental health, family violence drug and alcohol abuse or cultural disconnection?
  • Is the child or young person engaged with education?
  • Has the young person had previous difficulties with care environments (including not feeling safe, relationship difficulties with other residents or staff)?
  • Are there any immediate concerns for the young person fitting in with the culture of the current care provider?
  • What can be done to help create a placement for the child that makes them feel safe and comfortable?
  • Is the young person aware of what happens if they go missing (i.e a warrant may be applied for, media alert issued)
  • Does the young person have a curfew? Are there identified protective factors that will increase the likelihood of the young person meeting their curfew? What can the care team to do help support the young person stick to their curfew?

Strength based responses to the child’s missing behaviours and strategies for prevention should be documented in any safety plans, behaviour support plans, and, where the child is in care, the LAC records and Care and Placement Plan.

Assessment and understanding of missing behaviour

Understanding and making an assessment of every missing episode is important. Critical reflection following each missing episode helps build an understanding of the behaviour and the potential responses to it.

The following should be considered when making an assessment about an episode of missing:

  • Is the child ‘missing’?  What is known about the child’s whereabouts, are the circumstances are out of character, or is there evidence to suggest the child may be the subject of a crime or at risk of harm to themselves or others.
    • What is this evidence? Why is the child considered to be at increased risk?
  • Is the child or young person ‘absent’? Their whereabouts are known, but they are not at a place where they are expected to be and where the circumstances and context suggest a lower level of risk.
    • Is the child refusing to return after contact with a family member?
    • Is communication occurring with the child to negotiate a return home?
    • Is the child with people that may pose a risk? If so, this absenteeism should be treated as a high-risk event and may require a similar response to a missing event. 
  • Is there a pattern of missing or absent episodes?
  • The developmental age and stage of the child.
  • Is the child running away from something (i.e. push factors)?
    • conflict or unsettled in placement or at home
    • restrictions or rules placed on child’s behaviour
    • no attachment to a positive adult in the placement (i.e. child believes that no one cares about them)
    • lack of safety in home (perceived or real)
    • boredom, particularly if the child is not attending school.
  • Is the child running towards something (i.e. pull factors)?
    • a sense of increased control and autonomy by the young person
    • a desire to be with their family, friends, old neighbourhood
    • to attend a social event, particularly common for young people
    • a sense of rebellion (or beating the system)
    • to use drugs or engage in crime
    • participating in group runaway activity.
  • Is there a particular trigger or triggers the child is responding to?
    • peer pressure to leave
    • avoiding consequences of behaviour or professional appointments that may be confronting
    • positive or negative contact with family members
    • feelings of loneliness, isolation or depression.
  • Is the absconding behaviour meeting needs for the child?
    • reconnecting with family or a previous environment as an attempt to return to what was normal and who is familiar
    • regaining control of their lives
    • expressing feelings such as grief and stress? (Karam and Robert, 2013; as cited in Jackson 2015).
  • Other considerations could include the impact of the physical environment and situational factors on absconding behaviour such as: a new placement:
    • Is this part of the child’s settling process?
    • Are other children in the placement engaging in episodes of missing?

For shared clients with youth justice, the young person’s youth justice worker should be involved, via the care team or directly, in completing the risk assessment. It is important to engage youth justice in this process, to enable youth justice to exercise its own responsibilities in relation to the young person and noting youth justice may hold additional information about the young person’s circumstances and contacts.

Return to care conversation

Within 48 hours of a child being located a return to care conversation should occur with the child. This conversation is an important part of addressing absconding behaviour and reinforcing to children that someone cares about them. It is an opportunity to speak to the child about missing episodes - highlighting their serious and dangerous nature - and if unknown, to determine their recent whereabouts and the person/s they may have been in contact with.

The purpose of the return to care conversation is to:

  • Hear from the child reasons for leaving, and express care and concern; it is not an opportunity to reprimand and reinforce rules.
  • Discuss missing episode(s), highlighting their serious and dangerous nature.
  • Determine recent whereabouts and who he/she associated with.
  • Meet needs including food, sleep, hygiene, medical and health needs
  • Understand the missing behaviour in terms of push factors (running away from something such as conflict, placement issues with staff/ peers, rules, boredom, peer pressure) or pull factors (peers, family, events, substance abuse, crime, grooming associates).
  • Discuss what needs to happen to support the child stay safe and want to stay in their placement.

A return to care conversation should be completed by a professional the child trusts once the child has returned to care and is in a calm and engaged state.  The care or professionals’ team should determine the professional to lead this conversation and also a secondary professional in the case where the nominated person is not available. If the child does not want to engage in a return to care conversation, efforts should be made to undertake the conversation at a later date.   

If there was a missing person’s report or a Children’s Court warrant, consideration should be given to completing the return to care conversation jointly with police; as they require information relating to the persons absence to assist in the investigation of future missing persons reports.  

Repeat Missing Profile – Risk and Behaviour Analysis

The repeat missing profile risk and behaviour analysis template (repeat missing template) is a tool to help child protection practitioners (or case managers) analyse repeat missing behaviour; create a missing response plan and communicate this within care teams, professionals’ meetings and with local police. The repeat missing client template can be completed as a practice guidance tool at any time, and may be useful in case planning with family, care or professionals’ team.

Missing and sexual exploitation

While being missing is a significant concern in its own right, long or repeated periods of missing are recognised as a possible indicator of sexual exploitation. This does not imply that all children who abscond or go missing will be sexually exploited however it is an early indicator or risk.

Consideration must therefore be given to:

  • Is the child returning with unexplained goods, phone credit, cigarettes or new clothes?
  • Is the child’s use of social media negatively influencing their sense of self or peer associations, or is it a precursor to them leaving their placement?
  • Has the child mentioned an adult or adults who they have been associating with or places they stay?
  • Are there any concerns with the child’s presentation? In particular, concerns about drug or alcohol use? How did the child acquire and/or ‘pay’ for these substances?

Research has found that the experience of a child being on the street is likely to increase the risk of sexual exploitation partially driven by their need to gain money to survive (Smeaton, 2013). Whilst running away typically precedes a child being sexually exploited, it can also be a response by a child to avoid sexual abuse when being targeted by perpetrators in their home or in response to their disclosure of sexual exploitation.

Planning and responding to missing behaviour

Looking After Children (LAC) and Care and Placement Planning

LAC and Care and Placement Planning is the practice framework for making sure a young person’s day-to-day needs are considered and met while in the care of a service provider.

Where there are concerns about a young person’s missing behaviours, the young person’s LAC records and Care and Placement Plan must be updated by the service provider to reflect the roles and responsibilities of the care team, including their role in any actioning any safety plans. The documents should also be updated to reflect roles and responsibilities in relation to prevent the young person from going missing and support them to want to stay in their placement.

Safety planning

Yong people with high risk behaviours such as missing may require a safety plan to be developed and actioned when an incident of missing occurs. The safety plan should be specific to the young person’s behaviour, risk triggers and include strategies for prevention. See High Risk Youth procedure (include link) for more information.

Case planning

Where there are significant and immediate risks associated with a young person’s missing behaviours, child protection should play a key role in providing the care team or professionals team with advice and direction about how these risks are managed. Where these risks lead to a significant change regarding the child’s day to safety and stability in care, child protection should review the young person’s case plan.

Behaviour Support Planning  

Behaviour support plans can be used as a tool to understand and respond to a young person’s behaviour, which may include going missing. Behaviour support planning may assist the care team implement strengths-based strategies to prevent the missing behaviour from occurring, as well as de-escalation and response strategies to help keep the young person safe. For more information See Practice guide: Behaviour planning to best support children and young people in out-of-home care.

For children with a disability, the NDIS may provide specific behaviour supports and assist in the development of a behaviour support plan. For more information see Case management: NDIS and children with a disability and/or complex medical needs.

When child protection practitioners are the case manager

The case management for children may be contracted to a CSO or ACCO or retained by child protection. Where child protection maintains case management for a child or young person in kinship care or living at home who goes missing or is identified as at risk of going missing, the child protection worker is responsible for leading the care team or professionals team response. Child protection should ensure goals and tasks within the case plan focus on responding to the child’s missing behaviours and include strategies to prevent them from going missing.

Where a young person has a history of missing behaviours prior to entering kinship care, this should be considered and addressed with the carer as part of the Part A and B kinship care assessments.

Considerations for good practice

Once an assessment of the missing episode and risk to the child has been completed it should inform the timing of a missing person’s report to police, and a potential Children’s Court warrant. For example, if the individual assessment of missing risk is high, then an earlier response is required than the timelines outlined in the missing person’s report and warrant procedures.

This assessment should include an understanding of the developmental stage and self-protective capacity of the child.

In the case of repeat episodes of missing, responses should be considered as part of the case plan with the child’s family, care or professionals team and documented on the CRIS file.