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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Danny Rigg

Mystery of why people go missing and are never seen again

Roughly 170,000 people are reported missing in the UK every year

Most return, with 80% of adults and 75% of children being found within 24 hours, according to Missing People, a charity helping to reconnect missing people and their loved ones. But around 5,300 people had been missing for more than a year by the end of March 2020. Roughly 1,700 of those were children.

Among them is David McCaig, a 13-year-old from Wallasey who kissed his mum goodbye, cycled to a French lesson and was never seen again. More than 50 years later, police have found no evidence of what happened to David and his case remains on file but inactive. Merseyside Police has two cases on file older than David's.

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"The sad truth is, we don't always know why a person goes missing, because some cases are never resolved", said Paul Joseph, senior helpline manager at Missing People. In some cases, people choose to disappear due to various 'push' and 'pull' factors, or because they want to start a new life.

Paul said: "Push factors are things that make people feel like they need to get away, so things such as abuse, problems at school or work, mental health issues, relationship breakdowns, debt, suicidal thoughts.

"Pull factors are more to do with outside influences such as sexual exploitation and gang affiliation. We also find that if there’s been a big change in a young person's life, such as a bereavement, that can cause them to leave."

The reasons vary depending on the age of the missing person. Dementia and the confusion it causes are a factor in older people with four in 10 people with the condition going missing at some point. Three in 10 missing adults have had a relationship breakdown, and 80% have mental health problems, according to Missing People. Roughly 2% are escaping financial problems or violence.

For kids who go missing, the reasons are somewhat different. More than half have experienced conflict, abuse and neglect at home. Of the kids who've completed 'return home' interviews with Missing People, 14% had been sexually exploited and 10% had been a victim of criminal exploitation.

Paul said: "Running away isn't a decision that someone makes rationally. Some think it's their only option and think it would be better overall for their whole family if they were no longer around."

He added: "When they have been away for some time, they find it harder to return. Some people start feeling guilty about what they have done and can't face up to it. The emotions they are feeling can be very complex."

There are emotional and financial implications for the family and friends of a missing person. Loved ones may have to take on the responsibility of paying the mortgage and other bills, and many say they feel "stuck" and unable to move on with no closure.

Paul said: "When a person we love dies, we have certain customs and processes that we go through, such as having a funeral, and sorting out that person’s belongings. There is a sense that no matter how hard it is, you will get through it.

"But if you don't know whether your loved one is alive or dead, you can't do anything like that and people tell us they are left feeling very isolated and like they can't move forward."

Missing People advises people whose loved ones are missing. Sometimes they come to the charity unsure whether to report it to police, which the charity encourages them to do. Paul said: "Further along, we will talk to them about the option of doing publicity and give them advice on how to look after themselves emotionally."

The charity also runs a helpline for people thinking of running away. Ultimately, some people don't want to be found. In the case of adults, they can speak to police and won't have to return home or disclose their location. Paul said: "That can be very difficult for families but we have to respect that person's decision."

In cases like David McCaig's where a person has been missing for years or decades, police may make the case 'inactive' if "all enquiries are exhausted and we have gone over everything a number of times with no success", according to Inspector Sandra Capkan, from Merseyside Police's missing persons unit.

Inspector Capkan said: "All missing reports are subject to regular reviews from supervision and, at 28 days, a detective inspector from outside the unit also reviews the case. We would never make anyone inactive prior to this 28-day review taking place.

"When someone is made 'inactive' they remain on PNC as a missing person, so if they are found anywhere in the country, this marker shows them to be a missing person from Merseyside."

Inspector Capkan added: "All 'inactive' cases are reviewed - ideally every six months. A number of checks and enquiries are carried out, including force systems, hospitals, phone, social media, and if there is anything which leads us to believe we may be able to now locate the person, this is reopened."

You can call or text Missing People on 116 000 for advice, support and options if you, or someone you love, goes missing or runs away - it's free, 24-hour and confidential.

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