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Charities accuse ministers of breaking pledges on missing children

Original Source: GUARDIAN: SUNDAY 15 OCTOBER 2011
Mark Townsend, home affairs editor, Saturday 15 October 2011 23.10 BST

Government officials admit that just two dedicated specialists have been assigned to new initiative on trafficking

Kate McCann, mother of missing Madeleine McCann, with Sarah Godwin (left) and Nicki Durbin, also parents of missing children. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty

 Children's charities have accused the government of failing to fulfil a pledge to devote more resources to tracing thousands of children who go missing in the UK each year.


Three months after ministers announced a high-profile initiative led by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (Ceop) to help find missing youngsters, officials admit that only two dedicated specialists have been specifically assigned to the scheme.


According to government officials, the initiative was intended to ensure a "national lead" was taken in tracking missing children. Home Office minister James Brokenshire said that 230,000 missing children reports were recorded in the UK every year and that it was "crucial we can act quickly".


But children's charities say the scheme is under-resourced and its strategy unclear, pointing to the fact that there is no evidence of a single child being found as a direct result of its new responsibility. The only specific appeal launched by the agency to date is for Madeleine McCann, who went missing aged three on holiday in Portugal four and a half years ago.


Christine Beddoe, director of the anti-trafficking charity Ecpat UK, said: "We've still no idea how the scheme pulls together - there is no information being circulated about the brief."


Meanwhile, before the official anti-slavery day this Tuesday, details of a new scheme designed to cut the number of children vanishing from care - particularly victims of trafficking - have been unveiled.


A policy document by the Conservatives in 2008 estimated that "over half of trafficked children disappear from social services". As many children recorded missing later return home or are found, experts believe an estimated 140,000 children go missing in the UK every year.


The Ceop-backed Counter Human-Trafficking Bureau (CHTB), yet to be officially unveiled, says its anti-child trafficking plans would improve the protection and identification of vulnerable children in care at risk of going missing.


The plans incorporate a national database that would enable social workers to upload, update and share trafficking assessments of vulnerable children throughout the UK.


If evidence emerges that traffickers are attempting to target care homes or make contact with children, the authorities are immediately alerted.


Philip Ishola, policy adviser for the CHTB, said the scale of the challenge was evident from intelligence work by police revealing that children had phone numbers and maps sewn into their clothing in case they were caught by the authorities.


He said: "Nowadays they are even better primed and have been forced to memorise numbers and pick-up points.


"For some communities, the incidence of disappearance from local authority care is high. With the Vietnamese trafficking gangs for instance, it's as high as 90% because they use extreme control techniques: direct extreme violence to victims and threats to their families."


Ishola said that a specialist social work team would undertake independent assessments of suspected victims of human trafficking with the results fed directly to police.


Peter Dolby, co-founder of the bureau, was confident the scheme would address the number of children going missing and who are never found. Hundreds of child-trafficking victims who have disappeared from care have yet to be found.


"Failure means children being left at the mercy of serious organised criminal gangs and child abusers, a situation that goes against the British value of social justice and children's rights," he said.


Among events planned this week to mark anti-slavery day, new research will indicate that domestic servitude remains a growing problem in the UK. During the two years before March this year 895 cases of trafficked workers were reported to the authorities.


Labour MP and former Home Office minister Fiona Mactaggart said: "Unless there is a completely relentless focus on protecting children then they are not going to be protected."


A Ceop spokesman said other recruits for the missing children's unit would be sought "when they are needed and when the programme gets up to full speed". 


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