The First Step report on return home interviews (RHIs) for children missing from home and care is now out.
The study generated a rich dataset which facilitated analysis of a wide range of issues around RHIs, these issues were categorised into three stages; Reach, Delivery and Follow-Up.
Included are some key findings and conclusions below.
The report also contains a number of examples of promising practice and processes that the case study areas developed to improve the delivery of RHIs in their areas.
· An RHI should be seen as part of a continuum of responses from initial risk assessment when a young person is reported as missing, through to follow up support and appropriate information sharing after the interview has been done.
· Strong partnership working between different agencies within the local authority and between local authorities within the same police force is an important foundation for effective delivery, follow up and information sharing from RHIs.
· RHI provision for children in out of area placements is a particular challenge. Fewer local authorities could provide detailed data related to this group of young people than for other groups. But there was evidence that looked after children in out of area placements were likely to receive an RHI from social workers rather than a voluntary sector or local authority RHI specific service. Information sharing across local authority and/or police force borders was perceived to be an issue that needs improvement.
· Gaps in the responses of local authorities to survey questions related to service delivery – across a range of different aspects including take-up, after care and information sharing – make it difficult to conclusively measure the scale and effectiveness of RHI delivery, including how well follow up support is working. This is compounded by the absence of evaluation research on RHI services.
Key findings on the reach of RHIs
Responses from 78 local authorities in England indicate that in most areas offers of RHIs are made to all missing children after each missing episode. However, in a small number of local authorities this only happens on a case-by-case basis – subject to criteria in addition to a missing report – and there was evidence that this worked differently for different groups of young people.
Data on uptake of RHIs was patchy and it was not possible to provide a clear national picture. Across the small number of local authorities that could provide data on missing episodes and RHIs undertaken by groups of children (24 provided data in relation to children missing from home, 21 on looked after children missing from placements within their home area, and 14 on looked after children missing from placements outside their home area) around 80% of missing incidents resulted in an offer and around 50% in RHI taking place. Wide variations in uptake rates were reported in those areas from around 20% to 100%.
The need to obtain parental consent to undertake an RHI for some children missing from home was identified as a potential hindering factor for effective work in the case study areas, and the national survey showed varying practice for whether parental consent to interview was always considered to be necessary or not.
An understanding that there are many ‘hidden missing’ young people (those who are not reported missing by their parents or carers) had prompted teams in some areas to work in creative and innovative ways to extend the reach of RHI services – for example, by encouraging all professionals to report missing episodes, by utilising informal routes to find out about missing (eg through local contacts with families or young people) and by raising awareness in communities of the risks that young people may face when they go missing.
Key findings on the delivery of RHIs
Current provision of RHIs across England and Wales is characterised by a wide diversity of service models – including differences in whether services are provided by local authority employees or commissioned from voluntary sector providers, and variations in the approaches taken to making offers and to how the interview itself is conducted.
The majority of areas reported that the practitioners who are conducting RHIs with children who go missing from home or care are in-house RHI teams/workers or social workers. Voluntary sector RHI provision is less prevalent. Looked after children in out of area placements were most likely to receive an RHI from social workers.
A ‘young person-centred’ approach to RHIs significantly enhances practice, allowing for the individualisation in responses which is necessary to meet the diversity of circumstances and needs that young people who go missing may present.
Having a dedicated service with interviews conducted by professionals who have had additional training on RHIs has been identified as a model that allows:
- The streamlining of referral pathways.
- Higher levels of engagement by young people (including those who frequently go missing).
- A greater concentration of expertise to support young people.
- Improved understanding among practitioners of effective information sharing.
Key findings on the follow up after RHIs
There is a lack of data collected on follow up support after the RHIs. Out of 103 local authorities participating in the survey, 98% stated that the information collected during an RHI was used to inform offers of follow-up support to individual children. But only one third reported keeping records on what follow up support was offered and an even smaller number could provide any actual data.
In 90% of the 81 local authorities which answered this question, RHI notes were recorded on electronic social care systems. The type of information recorded varied across different areas – with 69 out of 87 (79%) saying that full notes (including on a young person’s experiences while missing, reasons for going missing, who they spent time with and places/ addresses visited) were recorded, and 63 of these areas sharing them with children’s social services, 38 with the police and 24 with a multi-agency forum. Data suggests that information recording and sharing is inconsistent across the country and very limited in some cases.
Particular concerns were identified about how well information sharing was working in relation to young people in care who had been placed out of their areas. These concerns were both in terms of host areas understanding the risks for individual young people and in information exchange between the police and the responsible authority (which, when it was not happening, was undermining the prospects for RHIs to take place).
RHI delivery and the associated sharing of information has been evolving since the publication of the 2014 Guidance. Evidence from the areas who took part in this research as case study sites suggests that some aspects of RHI provision are working well in some areas. But there are also indications (in particular from the survey of local authorities) that there are many ways in which provision across England and Wales would benefit from further improvement.
Some changes can be implemented by the local authorities by:
· Using a dedicated team to provide RHIs (if this approach has not already been adopted).
· Facilitating training for staff conducting RHIs.
· Creating clear pathways for different follow up support after RHIs for all children (not just those identified to be at high risk).
· Developing structures and groups for oversight and information sharing from RHIs.
Changes to national policies to ensure consistency in RHI provision which would also be helpful include the need to:
· Update/clarify the language used in this field to support consistency of communication e.g. missing definitions and terminology around RHI provision (‘offered’, ‘accepted’, ‘undertaken’).
· Establish a common set of indicators across local authorities to help areas benchmark and measure the scale and performance of their practice.
· Clarify issues around parental consent for RHIs, requirements around the 72 hour. timeframe for RHI provision, and best practice for information sharing from RHIs.
· Ensure that local authorities establish clear pathways for follow up support and monitor the provision of follow up support.
· Require that when a local authority places a young person outside their local authority area they:
(i) Name the potential RHI provider as part of the placement plan.
(ii) Share information on the possible risk of missing and other vulnerabilities of the young person with the host authority and police force.
· Establish clear expectations for the police around the timeframe for notifications to RHI providers about a young person found, and responses to young people whose whereabouts are known but who are considered to be at risk.