Where do missing people go?
Eight hundred people are reported missing in the UK every day. ‘That’s about one every two minutes,’ says Professor Hester Parr, whose research on missing persons won an Outstanding Impact in Society prize from the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) in June.
‘I am a human geographer. I lead a team of academics and police partners who investigate the geographies of missing people – where they actually go.
‘Many are children repeatedly disappearing from care homes, but a third of missing persons are adults. Around 80% of these have a mental health issue. Understanding the geographies of mental health is my passion. How people with mental health problems negotiate their everyday lives. How mental health issues are handled in society.’
Despite the scale of the social problem, Professor Parr realised there was no research to explain why adults go missing or explore their experiences. ‘Very little was understood about what happens to these people.’
Absent but not always lost
Professor Parr’s team conducted in-depth interviews with 45 former missing persons. ‘We found that people who go missing often stay in familiar areas,’ she says. ‘They want to be absent and not lost. They use conscious concealment strategies to help them stay hidden.
Professor Hester Parr speaking about her research
‘Many who take missing journeys do so mainly on foot, seeking shelter in a range of public and natural environments. That is when they are at their most vulnerable.’
Return can often be traumatic and marked by poor police handling, according to Professor Parr. ‘Some people feel criminalised. Police officers can be dismissive of the event or its cause.’
‘Translating the learning from this research into practice ... will lead to huge improvements in safeguarding our most vulnerable people.’ Joe Apps, Manager of the UK Missing Persons Bureau, National Crime Agency
A new approach
All this qualitative evidence was gathered, structured and used to create new guidance and training resources for UK police services on the handling of missing persons and their families.
The reception has been extremely positive, says Professor Parr. ‘In 20 years of mental health research I’ve never seen anything taken up to this extent. The police have incorporated our recommendations into good practice guidance. I’ve been invited to sit on national strategy committees. We have delivered 25 knowledge exchange and training events to serving police officers and on-going input into specialist search training.’
The scale of the missing persons problem, together with the recognised inadequacy of current responses, created the conditions for maximum impact, she believes. ‘There are so many missing persons cases. Resources are so limited nowadays that there’s a demand for innovative thinking. What can we do better? How can we prevent it?’
A focus on prevention could save public money, police time and considerable cost in human suffering. ‘That is a responsibility. It is not just the police. It is social work, the health services and the general public.’
A key area for improvement is what happens when a missing person returns, according to Professor Parr. ‘Over a third go missing again. We need to do better work on return. We have made progress. New guidance on the police interview, partly arising from our research, is changing police practice in this area.’
‘The stories launched in this project allow us to hear, for the first time, the voices of people who have been missing. These are stories that we have to hear and we have to share.’ Lucy Holmes, Research Manager, Missing People Charity
In recognising the current impact of Professor Parr’s research, the ESRC prize also helps fund future research. ‘I want to work towards consensus around what happens when people return. Who should support them? What kind of processes do we need?
‘I want to see the national-level agreements emerging across the UK being translated into multisector operational practice – by the police and the other organisations that work with these very vulnerable people.’
About the researcher
Professor Hester Parr is based in the University’s School of Geographical & Earth Sciences. She is interested in developing sensitive methodologies for working with vulnerable people. Previous research has investigated the relationship between mental health and place by focusing on how ‘mentally ill identities’ are defined by reference to streets, institutions, cities, regions, virtualities, natures and mobilities.
Professor Hester Parr
Geographies of Missing People Project