by Catherine O’Brien
They moved us to tears with their song ‘I Miss You’ on Britain’s Got Talent. Now Catherine O’Brien is given rare access to the charity that is helping these choir members find their loved ones.
Many charity heads find themselves rubbing shoulders with celebrities and Jo Youle is no exception. Dotted around her office are photographs taken at fundraising galas with the likes of Hugh Grant, Bob Geldof and Stephen Fry. There’s even a picture of Jo being presented to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Do an about turn, however, and on the back wall you will see another – far more prominent – display of faces, none of which is instantly familiar. Above each one, in bold type, is the word ‘missing’.
‘That’s Anthony – he’s been gone since 2012,’ says Jo, pointing to a photograph of a thoughtful-looking 27-year-old. ‘Aamina was just six when she disappeared in 2011. Lorraine hasn’t been seen in almost two decades. Behind every one of these pictures is a story of vulnerability and heartache and I keep them close because it’s important, amid the everyday distractions, to remember that.’
Each day across the UK around 700 people walk out of their front doors and disappear. Three-quarters of them are found within 24 hours; 95 per cent will have been located within a week. But while the vast majority of the 250,000 people who are reported missing annually return home safely, several thousand individuals vanish seemingly into thin air for months and sometimes years.
As chief executive of Missing People, Jo runs the leading charity dedicated to uniting missing children and adults with their families. Its 70 staff and 500 volunteers liaise with police forces across the UK, coordinating publicity appeals, fielding thousands of calls, texts and emails from anxious runaways and supporting many thousands more relatives and friends desperately searching for their loved ones.
What started almost 25 years ago with a single phone line is now a £3.5 million annual concern that earlier this year became familiar to millions of television viewers when its choir, made up of families helped by Missing People, reached the final of ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent (and is now set to feature on a Christmas charity album, Stand Together by Choirs With Purpose, that has Sir Paul McCartney’s backing). Now, as the charity approaches its landmark anniversary in 2018, it has granted YOU rare behind-the-scenes access to its 24/7 operation.
For those who work in this nerve centre for Britain’s disappeared, there is a curious paradox to what they do. We live in a world where we can be followed on Facebook, GPS-ed and caught on CCTV cameras an average of 70 times a day, and yet the numbers of those who slip off the radar remain stubbornly consistent.
‘Missing is a dark world,’ Jo explains. ‘It can be hard to imagine when we are all so connected, but there’s a parallel universe in which young people flee or are enticed into unsafe places and where those experiencing mental health problems take themselves out of touch because they feel those they love would be better off without them. And, of course, some missing people aren’t alive, and therein lies a unique kind of torment for their families who must live with the not knowing.’
It was just such a case – that of 25-year-old estate agent Suzy Lamplugh – that led to the launch of Missing People back in 1993. Suzy was eventually declared dead, presumed murdered, although her body has never been found. Welfare officer Janet Newman and her charity consultant sister Mary Asprey, who were friends of the Lamplughs, founded what was then known as the National Missing Persons Helpline in a back bedroom before moving to the modest offices in West London (donated rent-free ever since by Waitrose) that remain the charity’s headquarters today.
Missing People’s ‘incident room’-style hub has banks of desks for helpline operators (who man the phones 365 days a year thanks to funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery), floor-to-ceiling whiteboards listing those currently missing region by region and, behind a makeshift screen, a quiet zone for those who might need to offload with a colleague after taking a distressing call. It’s here, too, that staff and volunteers gather for handovers.
Helpline manager Paul Joseph runs through some of the cases that have come in overnight. They include Sam, whose husband Richard, 52, has a history of depression (up to 80 per cent of adults who go missing have mental health problems). He’s been missing for two weeks and Sam is beside herself with worry. A note has been made for the helpline to check in with Sam at 12pm each day.
Another logged call tells of Dan, 16, who ran away after a fight at school but wanted to send a message to his mum. He had no credit on his phone, but Missing People set up a three-way conversation through its free helpline so Dan was connected with his mother. Afterwards he texted to say, ‘I’m going home. Thanks a lot.’
Ramina, 18, also made contact after receiving a TextSafe – a system by which the charity texts the missing person and offers support with the pledge that it will not pass on information of their whereabouts to police or relatives without consent. Ramina confirmed she is staying with a friend and said she would talk to the police but couldn’t face her parents, who now at least know, after a week of worry, that their daughter is safe.
According to the National Crime Agency, more than half of those reported missing annually – some 140,000 – are teenagers and the most common reason cited is ‘problems at home’. This might mean, as in Ramina’s case, an adolescent flare-up that has escalated (Ramina said her parents wouldn’t let her ‘live her life’ and she needed space to think) or it could be connected to abuse or neglect. Around one in four incidents relates to young people missing from care and a small but significant proportion of at-risk teenagers – whether in family or children’s homes – go missing as a result of trafficking and sexual exploitation.
Becca Padbury, 26, Missing People’s development and partnerships manager, works with the Return Home interview team, the charity’s service that gives young people who have returned or been found a chance to talk through why they went missing, what happened to them and how they feel now they are back.
She tells me about Abby, 14, who was placed in care because it was feared her single mother could no longer keep her safe. Abby’s home life was chaotic and social workers discovered that she had a new ‘boyfriend’ who was buying her cigarettes and alcohol. ‘She was clearly being groomed and the only way to protect her was to move her out of harm’s way,’ Becca explains. ‘But as far as Abby was concerned, this man loved her and it wasn’t fair that she had been taken away from her mum.’
After running away from her care home and later being found, Abby met with the Return Home team, who are continuing to support her. ‘We are not the police or social services; we are neutral and the most important thing we give Abby and young people like her is space to work through some of the complicated issues that life has sadly thrown at them,’ says Becca.
Among teenagers, girls are slightly more likely than boys to go missing: 56 per cent of 12- to 17-year-old cases are female. Among adults, however, men are almost twice as likely as women to disappear. Adult cases are more challenging to resolve quickly and, as Jo points out, ‘it is still an adult’s right to go missing’.
A Missing People study some years ago found that 41 per cent of missing adults who were located were not prepared to make contact with those looking for them. Jo, who began working for Missing People as a helpline supervisor 17 years ago, says: ‘Like lots of people here, I have talked to a family and then found myself talking to the person they are missing who has subsequently contacted us for support. Both sides are in indescribable pain, but it is our job to hold those two things separate, because standing up and walking out of your life is a cry for help and a hard thing to do.’
One person who understands this on a personal level is helpline volunteer Pam Sargent, 61. Twenty years ago her brother Simon, who was then in his early 40s and the ostensibly successful boss of a sports franchise company, disappeared for two years after experiencing an emotional crisis.
‘He didn’t plan it – he just got up one morning, said goodbye to his wife, closed the front door and instead of getting in his car, stuck out his thumb and hitched a lift,’ she says. ‘He ended up on the coast and, as he explained to us after he eventually returned, he felt that every step he took was one further away from his problems. He would phone my parents to hear their voices but couldn’t speak. My mother always said she knew it was him.’
Today Simon is well, ‘but I know that had he been aware of Missing People, he would have used the helpline for support and to send a message home’.
Since its inception, Missing People has promised that if contacted by a missing person, it will not disclose their whereabouts without permission unless it considers there is a serious risk of them being harmed. That pledge does not prevent it from working with police and families to launch appeals through its website and social and print media, as well as on digital advertising boards in rail stations, bus stops, hospitals and cinema foyers. It also has poster space on the 1,000-vehicle fleet of wholesaler Palmer & Harvey and, via the Royal Mail, sends alerts to the handheld scanners of 124,000 postmen and women while out on their rounds, thereby narrowing the search to the nearest postcodes where someone has gone missing.
Publicity coordinator Ian Roullier ensures maximum targeted reach for almost 500 appeals a month by breaking down the UK into 12 regions. ‘Some cases are not suitable – for example, if someone suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, putting their image out there may increase his or her vulnerability. But in most cases publicity is invaluable, and even if it doesn’t bring a missing person home, it often leads to them getting in touch and receiving the support they need.’
Among those on the helpline today is supervisor Vivian Fowler, a 69-year-old grandmother and one of Missing People’s most experienced call handlers. She takes incoming calls and regularly catches up with those whose loved ones are registered long-term missing, ensuring that she remembers birthdays and ‘missing anniversaries’. Missing People is currently supporting almost 2,000 such families.
‘When someone you love has disappeared, what you want to do most is talk about them and keep their memory alive,’ she says. ‘When individuals walk away from their life, there are a lot of if-onlys. Could you have stopped them, reached out, been of some help? And it’s so hard to say, because although we think we are close to those we love, we don’t ever know everything that is going on in their minds. I recently spoke to parents who thought their son was at university, but he hadn’t been there for the previous two terms before going missing.’
Missing someone is like a bereavement, says Vivian, ‘but it is more than that because you are also having to deal with the horrors of conjecture – what could possibly have happened to them? With death, time eventually brings acceptance; with missing, the ongoing, gnawing ambiguity makes everything harder, sadder and more intense.’
While Vivian, with 23 years’ service, is one of Missing People’s longest-standing employees, Eloise Dickens is one of the newest. The 22-year-old law graduate was appointed children and young people coordinator in April and today is running a new initiative, the live online chatroom. Missing People has been offering text and email chats alongside calls for some time. Jo explains: ‘For many young people, it’s a more natural way to communicate. Some will share their darkest thoughts and get to the heart of their story in a few lines in a way they never would on the phone or face-to-face.’
The charity responds to text and email messages within an hour, but the advantage with 1-2-1 Chat, which launched almost a year ago via Missing People’s Runaway Helpline website runawayhelpline.org.uk, is that conversation can flow. Eloise allows me to sit alongside her as she handles a conversation with Kerry.
‘I don’t want to live any more. Life’s too hard,’ Kerry writes.
‘Thanks for being brave and coming through to us. What is making you feel like this?’ Eloise types back. Kerry goes on to reveal, over the course of a 45-minute exchange, that she has run away from home after a row with her mum’s new boyfriend. She is 18 and has slept rough for the past three nights. The previous night a drunk man attacked her but she managed to flee. She’s scared. It also transpires that she is pregnant.
Gently, with each response, Eloise acknowledges Kerry’s plight. ‘It’s important always to reflect the young person’s language, to reassure him or her that you are on their side,’ she says. Having won Kerry’s trust, Eloise sends her contact details for two homeless charities – Centrepoint and Shelter – both of which will be able to provide her with refuge. One disadvantage of nonverbal contact is that you can’t sense how someone is feeling from the way they sound, but as Kerry abruptly signs off, Eloise is as confident as she can be that she has the information she needs. Missing People steers more than 4,000 people a year to safety. Hopefully Kerry has just become one of them.
*Some names and details have been changed
THE FAMILIES SINGING FOR THEIR LOVED ONES
Today Jo Youle, 45, is a charity executive and mother-of-two, but in her 20s she was a pop star – one half of 1990s band Scarlet, which had a hit with its single ‘Independent Love Song’. So when Clare Cook, deputy director of fundraising and communications, suggested forming the Missing People Choir along with music producer James Hawkins, Jo was an enthusiastic supporter. All the choir members have a connection to Missing People. Here are some of their stories.
PETER BOXELL wrote, with the help of James, the song ‘I Miss You’, which is dedicated to his son Lee, who was 15 when he went missing one Saturday afternoon in 1988 close to his home in Sutton, South London.
Peter, 70, and his wife Christine, 75, still live in the family home, where Lee’s bedroom remains exactly as it was, with a Sam Fox poster on the wall and his Cheam High School blazer in the wardrobe.
Although Christine holds out hope for Lee, Peter is convinced he has not survived. ‘It’s the not knowing that is so hard,’ he says. ‘Someone may have done something terrible to our son, but we try to carry on because we cannot live in hate. The choir has enabled me to express my emotions in a way I have never been able to before. If Lee is not here with us, I can sing to him in heaven.’
RACHEL EDWARDS’s elder brother Richard , better known as Richey, the guitarist in the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers, went missing in 1995, aged 27. He had a history of depression and openly self-harmed. His car was found abandoned near the Severn Bridge.
In the early days, Rachel, 47, contacted every coroner along the river estuary as part of her family’s desperate search for him. She later went to the House of Commons to give evidence about their experience, helping to create the Presumption of Death Act 2013, which enables families to handle their missing loved one’s affairs.
‘The not knowing is like a pendulum,’ she says. ‘A while ago I was reconciled to Richard being dead. But now think if he had wanted to disappear and reinvent himself, he would have had the intelligence to do it. So some days there is despair and some days hope.’
PETER LAWRENCE’s daughter Claudia vanished in 2009 as she returned home from her job as a chef at the University of York. Although police believe Claudia, who was 35 when she went missing, has been murdered, her body has not been discovered.
For the past six years, Peter, 70, a retired solicitor, has worked with Missing People to create new legislation that will give families greater control over the affairs of missing people – beyond that provided in the Presumption of Death Act 2013. Known as Claudia’s Law, it has received Royal Assent and should be operational within the next 12 months.
‘There are no adequate words for what we are going through but we are singing alongside others who understand how we feel,’ he says.
EMMA CULLINGFORD’s mother Sandra Hall, 56, went missing in 2013 as she went to church. CCTV recorded her boarding a train and a month later her body was found in woodland in West Sussex. Sandra was bipolar and had recently struggled with a change in medication.
‘She was my mum but also my best friend and we spoke most days. It was unlike her not to be in touch,’ says Emma, 34, who works for Action Against Hunger. ‘That month was the worst of my life. You know rationally she cannot be alive, yet you cannot help but hold out hope.’
Missing People has been an invaluable support. ‘Even after Mum’s body was found, Missing People were there for me. They are like a second family; they will never turn their back on you.’
IF YOU NEED HELP
Call the Missing People helpline on 116 000.
– To donate £5 to Missing People, text the word FIND to 70660-
– For further information, visit missingpeople.org.uk