Absconding from care: The criminalisation of missing children

E. Colvin1*, K. McFarlane2, A. Gerard3, A. McGrath4

1 Centre for Law and Justice, Charles Sturt University
2 Centre for Law and Justice, Charles Sturt University
3 Centre for Law and Justice, Charles Sturt University
4 School of Psychology, Charles Sturt University

*corresponding author: ecolvin@csu.edu.au

In Australia and internationally, children in out–of-home care (OOHC) are significantly over-represented in the criminal justice system. Our research sought to understand the underlying causes of the cohort’s involvement in the criminal justice system. This paper presents qualitative data with 41 residential care and criminal justice professionals interviewed between 2014-16 in regional and metropolitan New South Wales, Australia. We interviewed key frontline professionals – NSW Police Force, Juvenile Justice officers, defence lawyers and non-government OOHC organisations on their perceptions of what drove the cohort’s over-representation in the criminal justice system and what interventions might arrest the trend. A key theme emerging from the research was the number of children absconding from care and the way in which the system responded to these children. International research has demonstrated that children absconding from care placements are generally viewed by police and carers as problematic. Our research not only confirms this but also identifies that the particular reporting systems in place designed to protect children actually serve to further compound the issue by conflating absconding with delinquency. This can lead to devastating outcomes for some children, as seen in the police failure to act on child sexual exploitation/trafficking in Rotherham, UK. Our research has clearly established that the institutional responses to absconding from OOHC contributes to the cohort’s overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.


Dr Colvin has been a criminology lecturer in the Justice Studies discipline at Charles Sturt University since 2013. She completed her PhD in 2015 examining the implementation and impact of pre-trial support services in Victoria.

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