Why young people in out-of-home care are most at risk of going missing

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A new report commissioned by the Australian Federal Police has painted a grim picture of the lives of young Australians living in out-of-home care.

Young people in out-of-home care are at the highest risk of going missing and being exposed to exploitation and harm, according to new research commissioned by the Australian Federal Police.

The research was gathered from internal police missing persons data and presents the first national picture of young people who go missing from out-of-home care in Australia.

It examined more than 3000 reports of missing children across a 30-day period in 2019.

The report showed while there are 44,900 people under 18 years of age living in out-of-home care - or one per cent of young Australians -  they make up over 70 per cent of missing youth reports.

When you break the data down further it reveals young women and Indigenous children were most at risk of going missing.

According to the research, more than half of the youth reported missing were female while Indigenous children made up over a quarter of missing children, and 18 per cent of missing youth.

Almost 40 per cent of children reported missing were just 12 years of age and 77 per cent of youth from out-of-home care went missing on more than one occasion.

“Some kids were being reported missing up to 20 times in 30 days,” the author of the report, Dr Kath McFarlane, said.

“It really indicates that this pattern of ongoing unhappiness, and push or pull factors that are dragging kids to go missing,” she told The Feed.

Foster care
Young girls and Indigenous youth are the most at risk of going missing.

Unexplained physical injuries, under-age girls being returned to care homes by adult men

Dr Tamara Walsh from The University of Queensland’s School of Law said she was not surprised by the findings of the report.

She said in her broader research she’s heard of many children absconding from group homes and believes it’s telling of people’s experiences in those placements. 

“They are widely reputed to be environments where often children don't receive the nurturing and care that they require,” Dr Walsh said.

“[Children] are being supervised 24 hours a day by youth workers rather than being in a nurturing family-based environment,” she added.

Worryingly, the research found a number of young people that had gone missing returned home drug-affected, exhibiting mental health issues or unexplained physical injuries.

It also found cases where under-age girls had been returned to care homes by unknown adult men.

“Young girls, particularly 13-15 years of age went missing at far higher rates than boys the same age,” Dr McFarlane said.

“That's really striking because it's one of the few occasions where girls and the crossover with the criminal justice system actually outnumbers boys by such a high percentage.”

Australian Federal Police logo (file image)
AFP commissioned the report

Why are young people in out-of-home care most at risk?

Dr McFarlane said there is often a misconception that when young people go missing their carers may dismiss their absences as “attention-seeking behaviour”.

“The evidence is not that they're bad kids, the evidence is that they're responding to being unsafe or unhappy or to pressures within the care system that doesn't provide for their needs,” she said.

Dr McFarlane said increasing evidence from the UK, Canada, US and New Zealand suggests vulnerable kids in out-of-home care are targeted by criminal gangs or pedophilic activities.

“They know there's a high turnover of staff, they know that there's often poor relationships between care staff and children in residential care. And they're, unfortunately, brought to victimisation and grooming,” she told The Feed.


AFP National Missing Persons Coordination Centre Coordinator Jodie McEwan said there are a range of factors driving the issue.

 “[These such as the desire to reconnect with important aspects of their life outside of the out-of-home care, a lack of support services, unhappiness with their placement, or to escape an unsafe or unsatisfactory environment,” Ms McEwan said.

She added the research provides police with “an opportunity to inform social service agencies, government departments and NGOs in seeking whole-of-sector solutions to support our young people” while reducing “the demand on police resources in the process.”

Representational image for missing persons
77 per cent of youth from out-of-home care went missing on more than once in 2019.

How can we prevent and address this issue?

Dr Walsh believes it’s important to note that children often escape care homes to visit their families.

She said her research suggests a lot of the time children do not want to be removed from their homes and what the child and parents would prefer is to be supported to stay together.

“A  lot of children are removed in situations where the mother has become homeless or has experienced domestic violence,” Dr Walsh said.

“In these situations, the best response would be to support the family to stay together, that is the mother of the children, rather than remove the child because the mother is at risk.”

She said the first step should be addressing the problems those families are facing with a trauma-informed approach.

“I think most if you ask most parents what's their worst nightmare, it's being separated from their children,” she said.

“We need to ask why.”

Dr McFarlane said research has shown applying a punitive approach and simply making it “harder to run away” does not work.

Instead, she believes it’s important to remember that children who go missing are extremely vulnerable.

“They've been victims of abuse by the hands of adults and it's our job to do what we need to do and to listen to them to make sure that they have a safe environment.”