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To mark National Missing Children’s Day on 25 May, Staffordshire Police is launching its Missing Persons’ Week; taking an in-depth look behind at the scenes at the work of some of the officers tasked with ensuring your loved ones are kept safe and sound.
Sarah Hutchinson and Claire Fernyhough are both problem solvers in the Early Intervention and Prevention Unit (EIPU).
They work to identify trends, analyse data and prevent repeat instances of individuals going missing by intervening before problems arise.
Claire, who has a background in criminal justice and joined the team a year ago, explained: “When a person goes missing, often the person reporting it is highly emotional and it’s in the hands of the call taker to obtain those details and make an initial assessment of risk.
“From then onwards, the Missing Persons Investigation Team are tasked with conducting inquires to find the missing person, in the cases of low and medium-risk individuals, or in the case of a high-risk, CID takes ownership.
“Our work in the EIPU tries to prevent individuals from going missing again and putting a process in place so that both officers and friends and family know what to do if a loved one does go missing.”
Part of this work has seen the introduction of the Herbert Protocol across the force, a national program which is used by families who have a loved one living with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
The protocol sees families complete a form detailing their loved one’s medication as well as personal history including places they used to work, their weekly routine, places of interest and other information pertinent to the individual.
This means, that if the person ever goes missing, officers have a starting point of locations to visit and families are able to share information that may not immediately come to mind during such an emotionally challenging time.
Claire says this is particularly invaluable when working on missing person cases.
“As we’ve come out of the national coronavirus lockdown, we’re already seeing an increase in the number of people being reported missing for the first time.
“This can be due to anything from a medical condition like Alzheimer’s and dementia to financial problems, relationship issues and drug and alcohol abuse.
“But we can help and our team is there to signpost people to services like debt management, relationship counselling and substance abuse organisations.”
Sarah focuses on early interventions relating to vulnerable children and also works with a variety of different services to protect them.
She said: “Often there is a stigma attached to children who regularly go missing and my role is to tackle that and remind people that these children are the most vulnerable in our society and deserve to be safeguarded and protected.”
Sarah’s role works with the local authorities, care providers and missing persons service Catch22 to prevent children from going missing from children’s homes and other locations.
She said: “These children are our top priority and all the work we do is intelligence-led, looking for trends in behaviours and activity in order to find out what is going on in their lives.
“Often, going missing is just a symptom of another bigger issue in the child’s life and our role is to identify that and look for solutions to make that child’s life better and safer.
“This early intervention can to safeguard and prevent vulnerable children from being groomed and exploited. That’s why I’m so passionate about the work that we do.”
Sharon Coates is a Team Leader in the unit and previously worked in anti-corruption (AC).
She said skills she learned during her time in the AC unit have been invaluable in her work to find missing people.
“When someone goes missing, it’s so important that we are able to access their location data from their phone as soon as possible.
“By using analysis, we’re able to identify the nearest phone mast to their last known location and this gives us a starting point on where to focus our attention.
“It also gives us a time frame as to when they wake up and go to bed, based on the activity the device data shows us.”
Now Sharon advises officers on best practice when it comes to launching and maintaining a missing person’s investigation.
“Going missing is such an unusual occurrence for anyone, and so our job is to find out that individual’s story prior to that occurrence and piece together what has led to this happening.
“Often, the going missing part is a message about that person’s difficulties in their life and their vulnerabilities.
“Our role is to learn these and find the individual as quickly as possible so that we can put safeguards in place to help them make things better and avoid future risk.
“It’s about facing the whole picture, not just finding the person and returning them to their everyday life, but doing what we can to improve things for them.
“Going missing is a signal of underlying problems that we have to address, so we link in with other partners to try and solve these issues.
“We know that a loved one going missing is an awful experience for anyone but we do our best to reassure people that we are there for them and we will do what we can to bring your friend or family member home safe and sound.”
Detective Constable Natalie Edwards is an investigator in the team. She started the role two years ago after a transferring from CID.
She works on complex cases including human trafficking and exploitation.
She said: “Often, in some of these cases, it’s like these individuals don’t want to found.
“So it’s like trying to track down a ghost. Sometimes there is no record of them in the UK at all, so it’s a case of working with immigration and the border agency to try and trace these people before they disappear entirely.
“Ultimately, my job, along with the team is to ensure the safety of these individuals, even if circumstances mean they don’t always realise the danger they are in.
“The same can be applied to missing children – the more often they go missing, the more vulnerable and at risk they are from exploitation.
“We have to work with social services and even other police forces in order to locate the child and safeguard them, sometimes away from their families.
“It takes a combination of hard work, joint partnership activity and sometimes just a gut feeling – you piece together snippets of information and realise that something is amiss – often that feeling is the right one and we act accordingly.
“Going missing is not a choice, it’s a result of other events going on in that individual’s life, and the most important part of our job is to help these vulnerable people when they need us the most.
“Keeping everyone safe is our top priority.”
To find out more about the team, visit: https://www.staffordshire.police.uk/advice/advice-and-information/missing-person/missing-persons/.