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Concern over 'astoundingly high' number of Caithness looked-after children reported missing

By Alan Hendry

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Councillor Andrew Jarvie represents Wick and East Caithness as a member of the Highland Alliance group. Picture: Callum Mackay
Councillor Andrew Jarvie represents Wick and East Caithness as a member of the Highland Alliance group. Picture: Callum Mackay

A councillor has voiced concern over the "astoundingly high" number of young people classed as looked-after children who are reported missing in Caithness.

Councillor Andrew Jarvie pointed out that the figures for the county contained in a Police Scotland report were comparable to those for the much more heavily populated Inverness area.

He was speaking on Monday during a meeting of Highland Council's Caithness area committee.

A police document presented to councillors showed that during 2022/23 there were 275 missing person investigations in Caithness and 131 of these related to looked-after children. This was down from 159 looked-after children the previous year when there were 283 missing person cases.

Councillor Jarvie represents the Wick and East Caithness ward as a member of the Highland Alliance political group. He was previously an Inverness councillor.

“In the past year there were 131 cases of missing people who were looked-after children," he told the meeting. "That makes up [almost] 50 per cent of the total number of missing person reports and it is an astoundingly high number for a small county.

“I can remember when I was an Inverness member seeing Inverness figures and they were about the same number, so I looked up the Inverness reports and indeed for the last year the number of missing people who were looked-after children in the Inverness area was 146 and that was out of maybe 700 total cases.

“The total number of missing people [in Inverness] is three times higher, as you'd expect. But the number of missing people who are looked-after children is the same.

"I'm just wondering if there are any particular insights into why this isn't working for young looked-after people in Caithness.

“I can appreciate it's a council responsibility. But I can recall in previous years the police have certainly intimated that when it comes to missing people who are looked-after children it seems to be that almost the 'go-to' is the police rather than the council itself because the council doesn't actually have the resources to deal with it."

Police Scotland’s area inspector for Caithness, Inspector Stephen Mezals, noted that those classed as looked-after children include young people who are on supervision orders but are residing at home with parents or other family members.

Inspector Mezals said: “Without beating around the bush, it's probably indicative of the withdrawal of services and availability of services in the Caithness area. There is no early support immediately available without having to travel, and that is a barrier for families.”

Inspector Mezals pointed out that some young people can be reported missing four times in one night.

“That will factor into the figures, so the figures are somewhat difficult to interpret in that respect because it could be the same child going missing time and time again, multiple times in the same night," he said.

"I find it difficult to draw any conclusions from that but I would say centralisation of services is probably a factor here."

Avonlea children’s care home, opened in Wick at a cost of £1.2 million in 2014, was closed at the end of 2022 and recriminations over the issue led to the resignation of Councillor Jarvie from the Conservative party. He had been the leader of Conservative group on Highland Council for four years.

Avonlea was described at the time of its opening as providing "a high-quality environment" for young people aged 12 to 16.

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