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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 October 2006, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
The missing link
Missing poster

More than 200,000 people are reported missing in the UK each year. Often, where every other organisation fails, the National Missing Persons Helpline finds them.

On 19 December, 1995, Diane Lilburn walked out of her home in Lincolnshire. She left no note for her mother and stepfather, she simply disappeared.

Her parents spent the next six years trying to find her, but with no sightings or leads their search was ultimately fruitless. Her mother Peggy had to try to come to terms with the fact her daughter might never come back.

"You just feel like the bottom has dropped out of your stomach when one of your children goes missing, it's as if there's a big hole," she says.

The look on Peggy's face every time we failed to find Diane, I didn't like what I saw, it was complete despair
Roger Lilburn
In a last-ditch attempt Peggy contacted the National Missing Persons Helpline (NMPH), after learning about the charity from a television programme. It found her daughter within a month, tracking her down to Brighton.

Diane was reunited with her family and told them she had run away from home because she was gay.

"I said to her that it doesn't matter what you are, most of all you are my daughter," says Peggy.

Diane now sees her family regularly. "I can't put those six years back but I can live each day now and cherish every moment that we have together," she says.

More than 200,000 people are reported missing in the UK each year, according to the NMPH - the only missing persons' charity in Britain. Debt, sexual abuse, depression and family conflict are among the main reasons why people vanish.

Battle

Of the thousands reported missing, most are found within days. But many remain missing for months, even years.

Where other organisation often fail, NMPH has a high success rate in finding people who disappear. It helps to resolve 70% of all the cases it works on. It is a staggering achievement considering the limited access it is granted to the best information sources and the closed legal doors it faces.

Unlike the police, the NPMH has no access to information such as bank accounts and mobile phone records. It has no formal agreements with doctors, hospitals or government agencies to share information.

Diane Lilburn
Diane disappeared for six years
Obtaining details is a constant battle as there is no standard protocol in place to allow them access to personal information.

It uses its own confidential and diverse network of individuals and organisations around the country.

Letters written by the office are forwarded through the network. The charity can only make contact with the missing person if they chose to respond to the letter.

For runaways, the charity's role outside of the police is massively important, as well as the fact all contact is confidential. But essentially the operation is dependent on the goodwill of those in the network.

"Trust is central to what we do, for the missing people we work with and the network we use to find them," says a NMPH spokesman.

"At the end of the day these individuals and organisations are only doing it out of generosity and they need to be sure they can trust us to use the information appropriately. "

Trust

The NMPH is also unique because it actively looks for all types of missing people, from high risk cases to low risk or "lost contact" cases.

Because Diane was 24 when she disappeared she was not considered a high priority case by the police. In this country you have a right as an adult to go missing. In other European countries, like Poland, it is against the law.

UK RUNAWAYS
210 000 people reported missing each year
Majority return within 72 hours
77,000 first-time runaways each year in UK under 16
One in 14 children who run away, first run before the age of 8.
SOURCE: NMPH/CHILDREN'S SOCIETY

"Here I can go home and I can pack my bags and I don't have to tell anyone and I can set up a new life," says Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the NMPH. "Some people have a very good reason for doing that."

But what the police class as a low-risk case is no less painful for family and friends left behind.

"It was never out of our minds," says Peggy. "It was always there."

The NMPH is now working hard to try and formalise a way of operating that will not fall foul of the Data Protection Act. This would enable the charity to find more missing people, and do so quicker.

"When you are able to reunite a family it's the most wonderful feeling of job satisfaction," says a NMPH case worker. "The amount of cases we resolve is an amazing achievement with the limited access we are granted."

The charity is also trying to secure funding past 2006. It was just days away from folding in 2005, but was awarded a grant by the government which enabled it to stay afloat. This year hundreds of families have been reunited with loved ones they would not have been if the charity had gone under.

"For those that look to us in that dreaded moment when you realise a loved one has gone, they would be lost without us," says the case worker.

The eight-part series Runaways is on Thursdays at 1930 BST on BBC Three, starting 19 October.


Wondeful that there is a group out there that is trying to help families, but how typical of our goverment and its attitude that they recieve no help, and that they are blocked by official red tape, when they could help ease the burden of work on the police, and help relieve people's fears and worries.
Anna, Cardiff

It never ceases to amaze me how the charitable organisations who really need the assistance have to be on the verge of collapsing before any government aid is granted. You can bet your bottom dollar if the relevant MP or budget holder had to be placed in the awful position like these families and make use of NMPH, money would suddenly be forthcoming. But I suppose they fall into the same category as charities like the Air Ambulances. Funny how when you need one they're there but no-one ever questions how they manage to survive just on their fundraising efforts. Well done to all of these organisations for their perseverance and dedication against what must be a constant uphill struggle.
Shelley, Rode, Somerset

With respect, I think Anna may have got the wrong end of the stick: were the government to put a significant amount of public money into a charity, the National Audit Office would require results - that's what it's set up for. And having worked for a small children's charity for many years, a huge amount of time is taken away from the hands-on work to prepare such statistics.
Fee Lock, Hastings, UK

This is a seriously useful organisation doing wonderful, invaluable work. I hope the 'Runaways' series does much to raise people's awareness of this issue, and also helps stimulate funding and donations to keep the NMPH alive.
Keith, Guildford, UK

An admirable cause, however in thinking of the missing people who have run away, we are forced to question their reasoning behind deliberately going missing. Is it in their best interests to be 'found'?
lizzie, cheshire

Like Paul Tuohy said, some people go missing for a very good reason. To escape abuse, to escape a life that has become intolerable, to escape stalkers, or simply to start again. Perhaps some of these people should be left alone. I've heard of at least one woman who disappeared to escape her stalker, only to have him track her down via a missing persons charity.
Michelle, London

My son went missing in 1996. The Charity were my lifeline in so many ways in the early days. I don't know what I would have done without them. I was able to call and vent my feelings with my case worker. I was able to keep his case high profile as they provided posters, interviews, articles and TV contacts. I still keep in touch with the Charity and after 10 years, they are still willing to help raise awareness. They offer a level of support to families that the police are unable to give.
Valerie Nettles, Flower Mound, Texas, USA

What an uncaring, selfish country we are, to spend millions on useless quangos, but rely on charities to find missing persons, or save lives at sea.
J Bullard, Northampton

You don't know how necessary an organisation like NMPH is until you yourself need them. They urgently need funds so I would ask everyone to keep them in mind when having charity pub quizzes, etc, as every little helps.
Nic, London

Another case of a charity doing a fantastic job and being reduced to scratch around for money with no financial security. Give these good people a regular grant from the National Lottery.
Robin, Woodbury, CT, USA

The red tape in place is extremely important. Considering the report it's self names abuse and family conflict as primary reasons for people to run away, it's crucial that people's confidentiality is mantained. That's what the data protection act is there for. The system of forwarding a letter and the "missing person" having the choice to make contact or otherwise seems to strike the right balance.
Jingo, Peterborough

How typical that someone has chosen to blame the government for something which is yet again out of their control. Unfortunately in order for us to have a right to privacy this means we can't be traced through official channels unless we give our permission. Until the missing person decides they don't want to be missing anymore their right to privacy as adults cannot be abused. I'm glad to see there is however a charity which is working to help in this way, and long may they continue.
Jennifer, Netherlands, ex-UK

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