Wednesday, 27 April 2011

The Reconnect Network: A significant step forward - but still split emotions!

It is a strange feeling, writing this blog post. On one hand I am happy to offer what support I can to the work of Missing People - but on the other hand I am writing this because my sister Clare went missing in April 2009, with all the sorrow and pain that entailed.  So I have split emotions...but that is nothing new. Throughout my whole experience of ‘missing’ I have found myself with split emotions.

The time Clare was missing was very distressing, but I also found the search for her very frustrating. During the search we could see the commitment of all the various agencies working hard to find my sister and giving their best, but it appeared evident to me that they had no method of talking to each other in a clear and consistent manner.

When they did talk to each other they appeared to ‘talk past’ each other; they appeared cocooned within their own world and processes without any real engagement with the other agencies or with the particular issue facing them. There seemed to be a vacuum between them which they were unwilling to bridge, and few conduits of effective information-exchange. Unfortunately, this resulted in a very ‘hit and miss’ approach to the search for Clare. 

Being the kind of person I am, I expressed my frustration to everyone - Missing People included. This issue resonated with them as the charity had commenced the development of the Reconnect Network, an information-sharing initiative, with the Department of Health around that time. The initiative, which was designed to enable the safe exchange of personal information about vulnerable missing adults between agencies, was piloted in the Westminster area in 2010.

During the pilot stage, Missing People put out 40 requests to the network to trace vulnerable adults, resulting in nine letters being passed to those individuals. Alongside the Health Service, police and Westminster City Council, five voluntary and community organisations have signed up to the Reconnect Network: Westminster Mind, London Cyrenians, Thames Reach, the Passage Day Centre and the Connection at St Martin’s Day Centre.

The intention is now to roll out the initiative to a wider number of partner organisations, and with further local 'pilots'. Wonderful news! - Missing People facilitating more effective working between a wide range of State and voluntary sector agencies – the ‘Big Society’ in action you might say!

I have been delighted to support Missing People in this project, however the split emotions still remain for me. With concerns about future funding of the charity; the uncertainties about Policing work on missing person cases in the future; the frustrations of the ‘Missing Rights’ campaign when the proposal for a Presumption of Death Act is ‘knocked back’ because it does not affect enough people and therefore “the cost outweighs the benefit”. (I genuinely did not know that Justice in this country was based on a cost-benefit analysis assessment! A similar law has been in place in Scotland since 1977 – maybe their cost benefit analysis had a different outcome?).

....See what I mean, split emotions. 

My frustration is not blind. There are those in power who care very much about this issue, and are on the side of pushing for change. Health Minister Paul Burstow attended the official launch of the Reconnect Network at the charity’s headquarters last week, and spoke powerfully about the need for improved safeguarding measures. I later spoke about the extraordinarily difficult experience of families searching for missing loved ones, and asked Mr. Burstow if, when he speaks with his Home Office and Justice colleagues, he wouldn’t mind passing along what he had heard from families at the ‘sharp end’ of the Missing experience.

I urge anyone supporting vulnerable adults with mental health needs to visit the website at www.missingpeople.org.uk/reconnectnetwork to find out more, and to get in touch with Jonathan Hirst, the Local Areas Development Manager at Missing People, to learn how you might be able to get involved in the Reconnect Network initiative. He can be reached at jonathan.hirst@missingpeople.org.uk.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

We were an ordinary family...

We were an ordinary family, doing ordinary everyday things as life hummed along in a comfortable hum-drum way. Then on 2 November, 1996, a wet, windy, cold night, my 16-year old son Damien went out with his friends and never came home. Never heard of or seen again. Damien has been missing for 14 years, 5 months, and 9 days at the time of writing this, and it is incredible to me that we still know absolutely nothing. It is incredible I cannot hold him, touch his face, hear his voice and laugh at his silliness. In a blink of an eye everything changed. I miss him more than I can ever put into words and it hurts deep in my soul.

It is the ‘not knowing’ that is the worst. We know nothing so imagine ‘everything’. We don’t feel he ran away as there were no signs or reasons that he would want to. Going missing was totally out of Damien’s character.

All we know is what we pieced together after we realised he was missing - his movements, who he spoke with, and more importantly a security video of him in the local chip shop surrounded by strangers. We later saw him on another CCTV camera on the High Street, walking alone, eating chips without a care. And then nothing more.

The attitude of the local Police when we reported our son missing woke us to the realisation that it was going to be down to us to look for him or find out what happened. With that in mind, we organised search parties, put up posters, did interviews with the media wherever we could.

250,000 people go missing in the UK every year, and yet it appears that there is more hope for a lost puppy - with the support of the RSPCA - than there is for my lost boy and others like him. The missing issue is not new and yet there is a complete dearth of guidance or support. The charity Missing People is our lifeline, but the job is massive and the funds are short for one organisation to meet the needs of such a big issue.

In March 2008, I co-organised ‘The March for the Missing’ in London with Nicki Durbin, mother of missing boy Luke Durbin, to help raise awareness for the issue and to pressurise politicians into passing a bill that would offer support to families left behind. We truly hoped the government would listen to our voices and recognise our pain. Not enough has happened, which is why I am glad to partner with the charity Missing People as it asks the Government to ease heartache and confusion when someone disappears by giving families of missing people the same basic rights as victims of crime. The “Missing Rights” campaign, as it’s called, asks for three things: 1) that families of missing people know everything possible is being done to find their missing loved one, 2) that families affected by a disappearance have access to support, and 3) that families left behind are spared the pain of unnecessary financial and legal bureaucracy.

A campaign like this is necessary, as I fear the current economic climate will continue to chip away at the existing support. The recent announcement by the government that it will dissolve the NPIA in 2012 with no confirmed plans as to how the Missing Person’s Bureau will continue to function is one such example.

I wish I did not have this life of eternal anxiety and worry and despair. But Damien went out one night and never came home and we are sure someone must know what happened to him. Maybe now those involved have grown up and have families of their own, and they might begin to understand how we are feeling about our lost son?

Over the years we have done whatever we can to keep Damien in people’s minds on the Isle of Wight and further afield. In January we organised an ‘Event for Damien Nettles and the Missing’ at a local pub in Cowes, Isle of Wight. We raised funds for the missing issue and we celebrated Damien with musicians, some who were his childhood friends. I wished he could have stood with his friends, sipping a pint, instead of the reality.

When will it stop?  When can we have a normal life?  When can I bury my son? The answer is that it will not, while there is a breath in my body. And even after I am gone, my children will continue to search for their missing brother. It will never stop until we find him. 

By Valerie Nettles
Mother of missing Damien Nettles

For more information about Damien, visit www.missingpeople.org.uk/damiennettles.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Will missing people be the poor relation after police funding cuts?

As the new financial year dawns, we should soon start to see the real impact of the cuts to police funding announced by the Home Office last year.

The scale of the cuts is significant. Government
funding for police is to reduce by a fifth over the four years, starting with a six per cent reduction this financial year.

Hardly a week has passed over the last few months without debate over how these cuts can be managed and to what effect. How much room is there to make efficiency savings? How many jobs will be lost? Where will they be lost? If there is any such thing as the ‘front line’ – how much will it bear the brunt of the cuts?

There are many demands on police resources. Solving crime, ensuring our security, reducing crime and disorder, preventing harm and protecting vulnerable people are all competing for a slice of a diminishing pie. Some police functions may have to be sacrificed to maintain service in these key areas. No longer accepting reports of lost property is one such function jettisoned by West Midlands Police this week.

So what does this mean for the police response to missing persons? Will we start to see police forces turning away worried relatives of a missing person? Will we return to the days of a tacit ‘call us tomorrow if he hasn’t come home’ initial response?

Will the available resource start to determine the level of risk for a missing person, rather than the other way round? Will the dogs, divers and helicopters be deployed only in the most acute situations?

These are important questions, not least for relatives of missing people. If your car is stolen or your house is burgled, then in most cases you will, with time, move on. If someone dear to you goes missing, our experience is that very often you will not. Relatives need to know that everything that possibly could be done is being done to find their missing loved one. Uncertainty about the police response leads families to start undertaking enquiries themselves and erodes trust and confidence in the police.

Recent ACPO guidance, published at the end of 2010, doesn’t appear to be battening down the hatches for a reduction in what the public can expect. The guidance affirms: “Missing person investigations should be regarded as a high-risk area of policing and given appropriate levels of priority and resource”.

If resources are insufficient to sustain existing levels of response to missing incidents, then we need to have an open debate about what can be expected and of whom.

We will also need to be alert to opportunities to increase effectiveness with fewer resources. Can the search for missing people be improved by investing in new technologies? Can savings be made by streamlining publicity for missing people, and by making better use of Missing People’s services? There is already strong evidence that improved data collection, analysis and inter-agency working can relieve the burden of missing person incidents on police forces.

As we enter a new funding era, Missing People will continue to campaign for the resources to ensure the optimum response to missing people.

By Geoff Newiss
Director of Policy and Research
Missing People

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Lost Children Tents: What do you think?


I have been a lost child in a sea of adults, and I have been a parent who discovers their child missing in a playground. Both nightmares ended within a matter of minutes, but the horrible experience stays with you.

Through my work as Chief Executive of Missing People, I have learned that words do not convey the terrible pain of having a child go missing and stay missing. There is no remedy, and no way of removing the ache. Nevertheless, the charity is dedicated to doing all that we can to be a lifeline for families of missing people, and to engage the wider society to play its role as well.

I have long been impressed by the way the lifeboat people, RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution), who “Save Lives at Sea”, have extended their services by providing local lifeguards on beaches. By broadening their scope of support, they increase the number of people who they reach with messages about staying safe at sea. I wondered what a local presence like this would look like for Missing People, and how it might help us to educate the public on the issue of missing.

This past Saturday – April 2, 2011 – the charity hosted its second annual ‘Miles for Missing People’ running event in Regent’s Park, London. The event was a great success – we raised £30,000 and brought together more than 1,000 people in support of missing people and the families left behind. There were so many children running around throughout the morning, and at one point it struck me: What if the charity endeavoured to provide a ‘Lost Children Tent’ at every major event attended by families? Festival providers would commission Missing People to provide a service that would use mobile technologies, wrist bands and central co-ordination to ensure that children stay safe if they get lost and are quickly reconnected with their parents.

In doing so, we would provide a small help that ultimately reminds parents of the much wider issue of missing children, and invites them to become part of the national community of support for the 250,000 people who go missing every year and their families left behind.  

Practically, I imagine every person entering the event would be handed a free wrist band with the helpline number for Missing People, so that – in case a child is separated from his parent – either the child or parent could call the helpline and Missing People – alongside local volunteers staffing the Tent - would centrally coordinate the search and location of the child.  

If it was a success, small scale versions of the volunteer-led Lost Children Tents could operate at every village fete and gala in the country. Our Lost Children Tents could also feature local long term missing people posters so that members of the public could wander around and sign up to Join The Search for those who have been missing for some time.

Finally if we were really ambitious we could roll it out for major international events like the Olympics! What do you think?

By Martin Houghton-Brown
Chief Executive of Missing People

Around 250,000 people go missing in the UK each year. The Missing Blog aims to give a voice to all those affected by this issue.

Written by families and friends of missing people, supporters working to raise awareness of the cause, and volunteers and staff at the charity Missing People, we hope that this blog will offer a window into the issue of missing.

The charity Missing People is a lifeline when someone disappears. To find out more about Missing People and ways that you can support the charity visit www.missingpeople.org.uk.

Call or txt the charity Missing People for free on 116 000, 24/7 if you or anyone you know is affected by a disappearance.