Out of area placements – police powers to return children.

Out of area placements police powers to return children.

A query was sent in to the NWG police exploitation network as outlined below;

“We currently have a number of ‘Looked After’ young people who are placed away from their home area. The reason they are placed ‘out of area’ is that there is a shortage of placements locally. They aren’t placed out of area to break the cycle of exploitation or because they need specialist support etc. The young people are clearly stating to colleagues within Social Care that they want to be placed near their family and friends etc. 

The young people are going missing from their out of area placements and returning to their home area, often going missing for a number of days before being located.  The care setting or social worker are often not in a position to collect the young person and local police then transport the young person back to their placement (they can typically be 80+ miles away). The young people say they don’t want to return. 

The first question asked is; in these situations what powers are being utilised to transport young people back to their placements against their wishes? Young people often go missing again on the day they return.

 In order to get back to their home area, the young people are jumping trains etc. There is the view that the risk to young people is increased when they are travelling back to their home area. Social workers are contacting the police lead with concerns around County Lines when this wasn’t a worry when they were placed locally. Meetings have been held with social care regarding the increased risk to these young people and they are often in full agreement, but the issue is the lack of local placements. 

The second question is; Have other areas experienced similar problems and how they have attempted to resolve them? 

Police exploitation leads from across the country responded with the following points;

  • One response received from an officer who has a lot of experience in this area.

“A full care order carries no additional powers and relates to parental responsibility for the child belonging to social care, it doesn’t suggest any increased risk to a missing child or offer anything to assist an officer in using force to detain/prevent a child running away.

As with everything, it all comes down to proportionality, is it necessary and can it be justified etc.  Always a degree of subjection here, but I personally feel if the child has been ‘High Risk’ missing, reasonable use of force, to prevent them running can easily be justified and would be lawful under common law (averting the imminent danger) or you simply use Police Protection powers under S46.

Section 3 Criminal Law Act, provides a power for ‘reasonable force in the prevention of crime’, if you consider that the child was likely to be exploited and therefore a victim of a crime if you let them go

If the officer ends up being assaulted, arresting the child is not proportionate (look at the cause of the behaviour, not the behaviour) With everything we know about missing kids, an arrest does nothing to help us identify the associated risks/offences/offenders and is simply dealing with the low hanging fruit. (This is obviously going to need to be balanced against the level of assault etc.) This is where educating our officers becomes important and reframing their thinking about how they view and behave towards a missing ‘looked after children’, particularly when the interactions are often at times of crisis/heated etc. I know how challenging some of our young people can be to deal with, but there may be occasions where a bit of self-reflection on how a bobby interacts with a child may influence the outcomes.

Sorry I can’t provide a clear-cut answer, but there simply isn’t one as there are many variables i.e. age of child/history/circumstances of that particular episode/level of risk etc. that will influence what we can and can’t justify. Ideally, I would expect a Sgt who has oversight of a missing investigation to incorporate this into their initial investigation plans, risk assessments etc. and include it in any briefings provided to the officers completing the tasking. I have certainly done this in the past and write it on Compact within your THRIVE assessment on a review and ensure officers assigned are aware, i.e. “ High Risk, when located take into police protection using s.46 powers under the Children’s Act and use only such force that is reasonable in the circumstances” or words to this effect.”

  • Another response received from a police lead outlined the following opinion;

‘I would say that often children are placed out of county often in an attempt to break the cycles of risk attributed to the nominal residing in their own home area. Also, I agree there is an issue with police having to transport as the placement are not able to do so.

In response the question one, there are no powers that are used unless the children are police protected and then you need to have a reason for this to be done. It is usually done by officers using their communication skills.

In response to question two, we regularly experience young people jumping trains or gravitating back to friends and family and I do not think this is something we are going to prevent unless the threshold for secure is met. I would agree to some degree that the young persons are at risk of grooming when travelling back to their home area as they are vulnerable when travelling alone. If the missing is frequent then this would be brought to the attention of the social worker, a strategy meeting held and at times escalated to senior management as a significant risk. We could also look at referring them to our RISE department (reducing incidents of sexual exploitation ) who do areas of work with the children or we have a CIRV (community initiative to reduce violence) who are a multi-agency and community centred project designed to reduce violence amongst gang members also those at risk of gangs.’

  • An additional response from the County Lines lead was;

In response to the first question, this is not a new question and is what many professionals are thinking when children often want to remain.

Taking each case on its own merits there needs to be significant risk to that child for Police to take action to remove him/her from harm.

With regards to placements, if it is via the courts then there is a need to remove the child to a place of safety.

What I would say is that if police are present then the child is deemed to be within a safe environment.

Removing that child should be the responsibility of the Social Care Team that have primacy either through a new or existing investigation/court order.

The belief that young people will be happy to be removed from their familiar environment and adjust in minutes to their new one often leads to the boomerang scenario whereby they return, by any means necessary, to a location or person they are familiar with, even though this puts them in greater danger.

Sec 46 of the Children’s Act provides Police with powers to remove and detain but to prevent ‘significant harm’. If that threshold is not met or the situation changes then the powers end.

For example, a child is taken into police protection after being found in force B. Force A then attend to collect the child. There is no power for Force A to continue the PP as Force B has removed that child from significant harm……

This is common in county line Police Protection cases where the child is found many miles from home and the home areas children’s services cannot attend.

We often try to do the best for the child’s welfare.

I have also taken the liberty to send the HMIC report surrounding the role of Police In keeping children safe. (Document available in the NWG resources)

  • Another response received from a police force’s exploitation lead, outlined BTP operation which used tactics to locate vulnerable children on the railway.

‘I suggest as it is a National Programme the officer could link in with them to try and intercept the children who appear to be at risk.  It may mean the children don’t get to travel very far before being intercepted.

I would also suggest that the officer holds a complex strategy meeting.  Prior to the meeting they share the information of police interventions with the particular children and the hours officers are taking to deal.  I have done this on a few large cases where I have wanted to change the safety plans and it has assisted.

Officers are using their Police Protection powers to transport the children but if they are moving them to a place of safety when they know the child will absconded they could refuse to use the powers and leave them at a place of safety in the force area they work.

The force lead outlined that their force has had a few cases like this and at the complex strategy I would suggest the senior officer agrees with social services that the children will no longer be transported but they will be delivered to a place of safety or the out-of-hours social work building to be collected by social services.  This tactic ensures CSC are taking the lead in transporting the child whilst police can remain in their force area.’


Kay Wallace

NWG Police Lead


07399 449039