How Fife is tackling the rising problem of missing people
'We want people to know that there's always help out there. There's always support available.'
Sergeant Craig Stephen is at the frontline of police efforts in Fife to halt the rising number of people who go missing.
As Fife Division’s missing persons operational co-ordinator, he knows better than anyone that finding someone who has gone missing is often only half the battle.
And the partnership which was set up to tackle the growing problem of missing people last year between police, NHS Fife, education, Fife Council and social work is marking six months in operation.
Among the chief concerns are children, particularly those who may go missing on more than one occasion.
That’s why the partnership now looks at the reasons behind the problem, and aims to help those who may be likely to go missing in future.
“With young people, growing up is difficult, and there are lots of triggers,” says sgt Stephen.
“It’s usually the lack of support and the lack of people to talk to.”
The partnership is already bearing fruit.
One case highlighted was a 16-year-old boy who had gone missing on no fewer than 21 occasions while in supported accommodation.
The group looked to identify the reasons behind it and changed his care plan and accommodation to better suit his needs. As a result, he has not been reported missing since.
Sgt Stephen says: “From working with various support groups, the message is that these children found somebody that they could talk to, so that rather than running away from their troubles, they could address them.”
During April there were 79 children reported missing in Fife.
These children, many of whom are living in a care setting, have varied and complex needs. There are some people who may go missing a few times, it’s all about identifying those people quicker,” says Sgt Stephen.
“The changes come not so much at the point of going missing, but at the point of being traced.
“We can review each and every missing person episode. Because of the process we’ve put in place we can quickly identify who’s been missing before, what risks have been identified before, and if things are escalating.
“That’s then passed to the other organisations represented on the partnership, be it social work, education, or NHS so we can do everything possible to prevent a repeat episode.
“We can then ensure they’ve got support to address whatever troubles are facing them, so they don’t feel the need to go missing again.”
For those children who do disappear, they may not realise the dangers that can await them once they’re away from the safety of home.
They can become involved in child sex exploitation, alcohol misuse, fall into the wrong crowd, and become involved in criminality themselves.
“They’re out there without guidance,” says sgt Stephen. “So they don’t have an understanding of the risks that they’re putting themselves in by going missing.
“There are always people who don’t want to have contact with the police, for whatever reason, and they’re more likely to be the ones that don’t want to make themselves known to us.
“But we’re obviously duty-bound to investigate, and ensure that they’re safe. And in any missing person investigation, that’s all we’re doing; making sure they’re safe and well. Any other issues can be dealt with separately.”
There have been concerns that some youngsters may see it all as a game, seeing how long they can disappear for, but Sgt Stephen says this is rarely the case in reality.
“With some kids there might be a certain celebrity status of being the missing person for X number of days, – but it’s certainly not something we’ve seen a great deal of in Fife.
“When people go missing it’s normally for a reason.
“And I think even with those cases there will always be a reason behind it.”
There are a number of avenues to turn to, like the Runaway Helpline, and for care-experienced children there’s a Fife group called 2B Heard which provides support for young people in care.
“I think the message is that if you are missing, the easiest thing is just to make contact, whether it’s through police, support agencies, parents, or guardians, and let people know that you’re safe and well.
“It’s important that they try and find that support wherever they feel comfortable, whether it’s through a parent, trusted friend, care worker, or teacher – anyone that they trust. Speak out, people do want to listen, and people do want to help.
“It may stop them taking unnecessary risks by making the decision to go missing.”