14 May 2005

Guardian

Missing: the mystery of 300 boys who have disappeared from school

Torso in the Thames case reveals 'scandal' of vanished children as welfare groups urge action

Steven Morris and Rosie Cowan
Saturday May 14, 2005
The Guardian

A "scandalous" number of children as young as four, many of them African, are missing from school rolls in London, it emerged yesterday.

The Metropolitan police revealed that in one two-month period, 300 black boys aged between four and seven vanished from rolls in the capital. Despite extensive investigations, involving police forces across the world, only two of the 300 were traced.

Child welfare groups and education chiefs expressed shock at the figure and warned that some of the missing children might become victims of exploitation.

Some experts estimate that thousands of children vanish from the system each year. Though it is assumed that most come to no harm, there were calls for the government to bring in regulations to force the authorities to do more to trace all missing children.

Hilton Dawson, patron of Africans Unite Against Child Abuse, said: "It's scandalous. I think the government is hiding from this issue. We need an effective working relationship between schools, social services, the police and immigration. That simply isn't happening."

The depth of the problem was highlighted when police investigated the murder of a young African boy - nicknamed Adam - whose torso was found in the Thames. They asked schools in London to check if any boys aged four to seven had gone missing over the relevant two-month period in 2001. Officers were shocked to be told that 300 had vanished. Of these, 299 had come from Africa.

The Met revealed yesterday that it has managed to trace only two of the 300. Most of those questioned said the boys had returned to Africa - but it has been impossible to verify this in most cases.

Tim Benson, the headteacher of the Nelson primary school in East Ham, east London, said he was "taken aback" by the figure. "We should be concerned," he said.

Kevin Crompton, chairman of the Association of Directors of Education and Children's Services, added: "We need to improve the tracking of children, particularly if they come from abroad."

Education welfare officers try to trace children who have stopped attending school. However, they only inform the police of a pupil's disappearance if they suspect that some harm has befallen the child. If a parent or guardian tells the school that a child has gone abroad, the school tends to believe him or her, again unless there are grounds for suspicion.

The problem of children of west African origin going missing is particularly acute, as there can be a culture of youngsters being passed around an extended family and taking the name of the relative he or she is with at that time.

Some children's organisations - and the Conservative party - have called on the government to do more to regulate this practice, which is known as "private fostering".

The government has estimated that as many as 10,000 children may be cared for in this way.

Barbara Hutchinson, deputy chief executive of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering, said private fostering made it easier for children to be trafficked into the country and sexually exploited or used as servants.

She said: "I am horrified at the figure, but not surprised. Many privately fostered kids get passed on from household to household. They may be moved around to avoid immigration control; they may be exploited. We know some children are being trafficked to be used as domestic servants or for sexual exploitation."

Theresa May, the Conservatives' family spokesperson, said: "This shocking news reinforces what experts in the child protection field have been telling government for many years.

"Children who are not in the care of the parents are disappearing without trace, possibly victims of trafficking, abuse or even murder.The government has failed to listen to pleas for tighter controls."

Chris Beddoe, the director of End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes, said the revelation underlined the lack of joined-up operational procedure for police, immigration, social services and schools.

She said: "In the worst case scenario, some of these children could be dead, or being physically or sexually abused, but the truth is we simply don't know because we don't have enough information, and that's outrageous," she said.

"We heard recently of a 13-year-old girl who told her teachers her parents had gone home and left her on her own in the UK, and some time later she too disappeared. The teachers don't know what happened to her. We are hearing this type of thing all the time."

She suggested that if the 298 missing African boys were still in the UK, some might be used for benefit fraud.

"It's predominant in west African culture for parents to send children to extended family, often quite distant relatives, for a better life," she said. "But traffickers can exploit this practice to get children into the UK, and children can also be passed around various households, which are all claiming benefits for them."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said the government was "deeply concerned" about any child missing from education. "We have been working hard to ensure that much more robust systems are in place to protect the welfare of children and that information about children is shared by professionals."

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