Multi-agency management of risk in relation to missing children


In 2018/2019, UK police forces recorded 218,707 missing incidents involving 75,918 children. In particular, children living in care are three times more likely to go missing and to go missing multiple times. Responding to incidents of missing children is resource intensive for police. With 20,600 fewer officers than in 2010 and increasing incidents of children repeatedly missing from care, police are under pressure to do more with less.

Resource investment is determined by risk classification (no apparent risk, low, medium, high), with minimal resource investment for ‘no apparent risk’. Instead, there is an expectation that partner agencies will adopt responsibility for monitoring the situation. However, figures show that agencies are reluctant to use low risk categories for children (15% of reports classified as ‘no apparent’ or ‘low risk’, compared to over 75% classified as medium and 7% classified as high risk in England and Wales in 2018/19). A recent national review of the Missing People Authorised Professional Practice (APP) indicates this is due to how ‘missing’ is defined and implemented in practice across agencies. Most notably, police believe the definition has “little implication for agencies outside of policing to deal appropriately with missing persons”, compounding problems with partner agencies passing on responsibility for children absent from care to police, with substantial resource implications. Findings suggest this problem is underpinned by lack of shared inter-agency understanding of concepts such as ‘missing’ or roles and responsibilities within this context.

Previous research into inter-team coordination in other risky and uncertain environments, such as emergency response, shows that lack of shared understanding of roles and responsibilities compromises ability to coordinate goals and actions, exchange information, and allocate resources effectively, resulting in delayed decisions and actions. Differences in expertise and practices lead to differences in how problems are conceptualised, resulting in agencies implementing actions that work against one another. Within the missing person context, a report recently produced for the National Police Chiefs Council highlights problems with partners sharing important information for assessing risk, and with sharing responsibility. However, there is a lack of research comparing understanding of risk and subsequent harm, or of roles and responsibilities in relation to missing children across agencies; key issues to address if inter-team coordination is to be improved in practice.

You will work closely with Dr Sara Waring, Dr Susan Giles, and Dr Freya O’Brien in the Forensic Psychology research group at the University of Liverpool, as well as with police collaborators. Driven by findings of recent national policing reports, this PhD project will involve working with South Wales Police to understand how agencies 1) define their roles and responsibilities, 2) conceptualise risk, and 3) how these conceptualisations impact on responses in relation to children missing from residential care homes.

This studentship is suited to a candidate with a background in psychology and an interest in bringing about real-world change. Due to the unique nature of this studentship, we welcome candidates from a range of backgrounds.

Candidates must have a first class honours degree in psychology, first class or upper 2.1 grades in research methods and statistics modules at undergraduate level, and experience of conducting both qualitative and quantitative research (inc. working with SPSS or R), and good scientific writing skills. Candidates must also have no previous criminal records (prospective candidate will have to undergo security vetting after commencement of PhD). Experience of working with police or other relevant agencies, studying or conducting research in an area of investigative or forensic psychology, interviews or assisting in the preparation of articles for publication are desirable but not essential.

This four-year studentship will be comprised of completing a one-year MSc in Investigative and Forensic Psychology at the University of Liverpool, followed by a three-year PhD. This MSc is recognised by the ESRC as a Research Methods MSc. The studentship is funded by the North West Social Sciences Doctoral Training Partnership, and you will have access to the ‘Methods NW Events / Short Courses’ schemes arranged by the three NWDTC institutions. You will also have the opportunity to take part in national and international conferences.

Applications are by CV and covering letter to Dr Sara Waring ( by 26th February 2021. You should detail your interest in the studentship and outline your relevant experience, training and suitability for the position.