Around 327,000 incidences of people reported as missing are reported to authorities each year in the UK, but little research exists which could provide practical insights to benefit those with responsibility for and to missing adults. The Geographies of Missing People project is the first study to perform in-depth interviews with people who have been reported as missing and make recommendations on how the support they receive after they return can be improved.
The project is a partnership between the Universities of Glasgow and Dundee, the Scottish Institute for Policing Research, London Metropolitan Police, Police Scotland and supported with expert advice from the charity Missing People.
At the first International Conference on Missing Children and Adults at the University of Portsmouth, the team will present the outcomes of conversations with 45 people aged between 18 and 79 who were reported missing between 2009 and 2011 in the Grampian region and the London Metropolitan area.
Dr Hester Parr, from the University of Glasgow’s School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, is the primary investigator on the project. Dr Parr said: “Our research aims to identify not just why a person gets reported as missing, but to provide a deeper exploration of wherethey go, howthey make decisions in relation to their geographies and the emotions they experience while they are away.
“People choose to go missing for a wide variety of reasons, but there are common threads. A history of traumatic experiences, feelings of being unable to cope, and feeling trapped or powerless to share their emotions were widely reported by those we spoke to.
“Once people chose to go missing, they very resourcefully used physical, natural and built environments to shelter, rest, hide and travel. Many people remain relatively local to where they disappeared from, suggesting they want to be missing but also know where they are in relation to familiar places.
“The journeys are very stressful and although people may not know they are officially reported as missing, they realise someone may be trying to trace them. Many are unsure what will happen to them if they are located by the police, with some fearing arrest, and often they are surprised to be treated with sympathy and understanding.
“Ultimately, what officers say to people once they’re found about being a missing person matters hugely in helping people cope after the event. When police are unsympathetic, people can be left feeling confused and guilty, and perhaps more likely to go missing again in the future. We hope that the work we’ve done will be a valuable resource in police education and training in the future.”
The 45 interviews conducted by the team have been condensed into ten ‘composite’ first-person stories which highlight common areas of the experience of those who have chosen to go missing, including ‘ being missing for 24 hours’, ‘being reported as missing from hospital’ and ‘being missing and located by the police’. The composites, published in a booklet and available as audio downloads, are entitled Missing People, Missing Voices: Stories of Missing Experience, will be available from the Geographies of Missing People website.
The team has drawn up a series of recommendations for government, police agencies, healthcare professionals and voluntary agencies. These include: placing the provision of consulation with adults reported as missing at the heart of policy creation; increased information-sharing between statutory and voluntary agencies on issues of missing people; information campaigns for GPs, mental health services and hospitals to help them identify those at risk of going missing and encouraging police to inform returned missing people about the range of support services available to them.
Dr Parr added: “Our interviewees report difficulty in speaking to people about their experiences once they return to their lives. Our hope is that research such as this will help broaden public and professional understanding of people reported as missing and lessen the stigma attached to the experience, and that our recommendations can be taken on board across the country.”
Geographies of Missing People is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).