What works in improving interagency responses to missing children investigations?

by | May 10, 2024 | 0 comments

New research on how to improve the working relationship between police and partner agencies.

Public inquiries and national reviews highlight issues with interagency working between police, social care, and other partner agencies in the response to missing children. New research produced by the University of Liverpool examines what factors affect this interagency working and why. The research provides practical suggestions for how to improve the collective multi-agency response.

The heart of the matter

In the UK, ‘missing’ is defined as “anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established” and they will be “considered as missing until located, and their well-being or otherwise confirmed”. Every year, more than 350,000 missing incidents are reported to police across the UK. Children make up more than 60% of these reported incidents, with care experienced children three times more likely to go missing, and to go missing multiple times.

The duty of care for preventing children from going missing and acting when they do belong to multiple agencies, including police, care homes, social services, local authorities, health, and education. However, police perceive the responsibility to be falling heavily on their shoulders, creating strain on limited resources. Effective multiagency working is essential to preventing children from going missing and improving the response. In practice, this is easier said than done, with public inquiries and national reviews identifying a number of issues with information sharing, and misunderstandings regarding terminology and one other’s roles and responsibilities. Nevertheless, what is often missing is evidence to help understand the causes of these issues and to provide useful, clear guidance about what steps to take to improve inter-agency working in the response to missing children.

The research

To address the gap, we conducted a scoping review, pooling together existing research to answer the question:

‘What approaches can be or have been applied to missing children investigations to improve the working practise between police and partner agencies to reduce harm, and/or demand?’.

Relevant sources were identified through searching journal databases and websites for services involved with missing (e.g., Missing People, Barnardo’s etc.), sending freedom of information requests to all UK police forces, contacting experts in the field, and reviewing reference sections for relevant literature. In total, 35 sources were identified and analysed to identify what is currently known about what approaches can improve inter-agency working in the response to missing children.


Whilst some contradictory suggestions were provided across sources, a number of consistent mechanisms were reported to help improve multi-agency working in missing child investigations. These included:

Better information sharing processes – By establishing joint data-sharing protocols, agencies could avoid task duplication and build trust.

Facilitating cross-agency technology – Allowing read-only access to each other’s databases could speed up risk assessments significantly.

Implementing a single point of contact (SPOC) – Having a dedicated liaison between agencies for communication during live investigations could reduce bottlenecks and enhance response times.

Regular, inclusive multi-agency meetings – These sessions not only improve mutual understanding but also foster a unified approach to roles and responsibilities.

Unified terminology and training Shared definitions and joint training sessions can clarify expectations and improve partnerships.

This is the first comprehensive study to offer police and partner agencies concrete recommendations for what mechanisms to focus on to improve inter-agency working in preventing and responding to missing child incidents. However, most of the interventions highlighted in the sources included in the scoping review were self-reports rather than providing empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of these approaches. This suggests that future research needs to move beyond assumed argument that inter-agency working is a best practice approach to systematically examine the impact and outcomes of different approaches to inter-agency working within a missing child setting. We are now working on achieving that by measuring if processes and mechanisms are leading to less reports and children being found quicker. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who wishes to discuss any aspect of this project, so please get in touch: p.m.monaghan@liverpool.ac.uk

Read the full, freely-available paper at SageJournals.


About the Authors

Paige Monaghan is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool focusing on multi-agency responses to missing children investigations. Paige also volunteers for Locate International, a UK Registered Charity dedicated to helping families of unsolved missing person cases find their loved ones.

Dr. Sara Waring is a senior lecturer in the department of Psychology and Impact Lead for the Institute of Population Health at the University of Liverpool. Sara is also a member of both the Risk Institute and the Centre for Autonomous Systems Technologies, research groups that focus on solving complex problems through interdisciplinary collaborations.

Dr Susan Giles is a senior lecturer in Forensic and Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool. Susan is an internationally recognised expert in Evidence Based Policing and specialises in equivocal death, contested document analysis, police decision making, risk assessment in missing person cases and sexual offences, evidence-based policing and evaluation. Susan has developed a framework for the analysis of contested documents that has been applied in active missing person and equivocal death enquiries.

Dr. Freya O’Brien is a Chartered Psychologist and Senior lecturer in policing at Liverpool John Moores University. Freya is an internationally recognised expert in missing people research. Freya was invited to Chair the 4th International Conference in Children and Adults at the University of Liverpool in 2019. Freya is a member of National Police Chief’s Council’s Missing Persons Expert Reference Group and Editor for International Journal of Missing Persons. Freya’s work has shaped policy and practice and she has the skills to measure impact (e.g., led evaluation of ITOK for Missing People and NSPCC Childline).