Missing children and young people - advice

This advice provides information regarding children and young people subject to child protection involvement who go missing.

Document ID number 2359 , version 1, 16 March 2017.


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) may engage in high risk behaviours including running away or 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)  

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.

Episodes of missing may appear similar, however an assessment of each episode will strengthen understanding of the behaviour, the child and appropriate responses. 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 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?

Return to care conversation

Within one working day 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.

A return to care conversation is required when a child has been absent for more than 24 hours or when a child has gone missing on three or more occasions.

The focus of a return to care conversation is to hear from the child any reasons for leaving and emphasising care and concern. It should not be an opportunity to reprimand or reinforce rules that the child may have broken. The return to care conversation should also address any immediate health, emotional and safety needs of the child.

A return to care conversation should be completed by a professional the child trusts. 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 there was a missing persons 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 profile 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 profile 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.

However, if the child is missing from placement or absconds three times in 28 days, or the child is missing for a period longer than seven days, it must be completed.

The repeat missing profile client template should be completed with the family and professionals involved in the daily care of the child and once completed, attached to the CRIS file (and CRISSP file if required). It is important to share this template with services who will be responding to incidents after hours such as residential care staff and local police who will be involved in the missing response plan (where the Missing persons report will be placed).

The template should be updated if:

  • there is a change in missing or absent behaviour i.e. frequency, timing, length of absence
  • a change in the assessment of risk posed to the child or young person whilst absent from care or placement
  • there is a change to the agreed missing response plan by the care team.

Child Protection Missing Coordinator

The missing coordinator role is a portfolio responsibility allocated to a senior representative within child protection (CPP 6 or above) and is the person responsible for overseeing the missing episodes of all children at the office, area or divisional level.  

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 of 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.

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 persons 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 persons 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. 

If the child is missing from placement or absconds three times in 28 days or the young person is missing for seven consecutive days a Repeat Missing Profile – Risk and Behaviour Analysis should be completed.