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Fostering fears: What happens when a child goes missing from care?

Wednesday 23 February 2022
Young person on bridge

Galina is one of our experienced foster carers, mainly supporting teenagers to independence. She shares her advice on what to do when a child doesn’t return home

It’s scary, but you’re not alone

Galina confesses it’s frightening when a child in your care doesn’t come home.  She says, “When it happens, you worry about their safety, but don’t let that put you off”.

Galina says, “Know that you’re never alone. You get so much help from different people, the police, social services, the school and Action for Children. You’ll have lots of support.”

Action for Children supports foster carers 24 hours a day, seven days a week. This means that whatever happens, someone will be there to guide you on what steps you need to take.

Why does a child go missing from foster care?

There's lots of reasons children go missing from foster care. Most of the time, children will be with their friends or birth family.

“If they’re in touch with their birth family, sometimes they’ll run home to see them. They’ll often want to stay out with their friends too.”

It can be difficult for young people to adjust to their new fostering family. It can take time to build trust and for strong bonds to form.

If they’re in touch with their birth family, sometimes they’ll run home to see them

Galina

Some of our foster carers find that young people want to experiment with drugs and alcohol.

Galina remembers, “One of my foster children said that they didn’t come home because they didn’t want me to see how they looked.”

It’s not uncommon for children who’ve experienced trauma and neglect to feel shame. Understanding their perspective on why they’ve not returned home is vital. It could be they’re worried about the impact their actions might have on their home life.

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Serious teenage girl

Children who've experienced trauma and neglect will feel shame

Galina's tips: What to do when a child goes missing

1. Try to contact the child first

Galina’s first tip is, “Do everything you can to find the child. Remember that sometimes children will lose track of time or may be testing your commitment to them. It’s vital to check in before raising the alarm.”

As their foster carer, most of the time you’ll know where they are. If a young person isn’t answering their phone, you’ll check with their close friends and family to begin with.

2. Always inform the social worker

Your social worker is there to support you, as well as a 24/7 wrap-around support team. You'll never have to make decisions on your own.

“My social worker is always near me if I need them, my Team Manager too. The police also support you to find the child.”

My social worker is always near me if I need them

Galina

3. When they do come home, what then?

It can be difficult to stay calm after so much uncertainty. Galina’s advice is to be kind.

“Offer them some food. For me, it doesn’t matter what time the child comes home, I always offer food. Give them a hug, let them know you’re happy to see them and it’s nice they’re back. Tell them you’ve missed them and carry on as normal.”

Acting with empathy helps the child to feel accepted after they return. By letting them know you’ve been worried about them, helps them to recognise you care. It builds trust and seals the bond between a foster carer and young person.

mother and son

Acting with empathy helps the child to feel accepted after they return

4. Be patient and calm

Galina reflects, “I never ask a child where they’ve been or what they’ve been doing right away. Asking them questions when they first see you will not work.”

In situations like this, acting with compassion and active listening are key. For most vulnerable children, confrontation will cause a fight or flight reflex. It may mean the child feels attacked, causing them to run away again.

If you go back and think about their childhood, you don’t know what might have happened to them. You might scare them

Galina

Galina explains, “If you go back and think about their childhood, you don’t know what might have happened to them, you might scare them. You wait for the right time, then you find out what triggered them to run away.”

5. Seek out support from friends and family

Galina believes having a supportive network around you will help you through the tougher times of fostering. Her advice is to reach out to a loved one.

“I’m so lucky because my children are incredibly supportive and understand the situation. They always give me a hug if I need it. And I have a brilliant husband, he supports me and has a great relationship with our foster children.”

I’m really happy with how Action for Children has supported me over the years

Galina

As well as support from loved ones, Action for Children provide ongoing training and support to carers. Galina said, “I’m really happy with how Action for Children has supported me over the years, the annual training helps to prepare you too”.

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