THE number of missing young people in Glasgow has dropped thanks to a collaboration between cops and children's units.

Experts say the Respect Programme, which sees Police Scotland work with care providers in Greater Glasgow, is tackling the numbers of looked after and accommodated (LAAC) teenagers being reported missing.

It aims to reduce the unnecessary criminalisation of children and young people who live in care homes and to change the way missing person episodes are dealt with.

The Glasgow Times has this week looked at how missing persons cases are investigated in the city.

We spoke to Sergeant Jonathan Ogle and Inspector James Friel to find out what preventative work police are doing around the issue for the city's youngest and oldest residents.

Until recently, children's units would be obliged to call police as soon as a young person failed to return home at the agreed time and missing person protocol would be activated. 

Now, with the Respect Programme in place, care workers follow a "not at home policy" with an "in-house investigatory check list" to go through before they contact Police Scotland.

Jonathan said: "Children and young people will test boundaries. 

"So the failure to return home can be just a way of testing boundaries and a deliberate act, rather than there being any perceived risk to the young person or wider members of the public.

"Staff members know these young people much better than the police do so they'll know the behaviour of the young person before they left and they will know where they are going and who they are hanging around with.

"Maybe it's been a tough day or week for them, or it's a tough time of year for them because of previous traumas, but if the staff are comfortable that the young person is not at risk then they don't need to report it."

If, however, the care home staff deem there to be an "intolerable risk" to the young person then police will act.

Workers can also phone up to run the situation by officers without triggering the missing person protocol.

And care home also have a SPOC – a single point of contact – officer who will visit the home regularly to build relationships with young people.

This new way of working, Jonathan said, has helped build relationships between young people, care staff and police, as teenagers feel they are trusted and respected.

He added: "The young person knows that if they're not back at 10pm then the police are going to be contacted right away.

"Depending on how quickly the information is passed on, they could be picked up pretty quickly.

"That causes embarrassment in front of their friends and further stigmatise a young person who, by virtue of being looked after and accommodated, is already stigmatised."

Jonathan young people would "close up" when taken home by police but now that pressure is off, they are opening up more.

And information is key to keep teenagers safe.

The sergeant added: "Children gravitate to the city centre and that opens them up to the danger of all the issues in the city centre and the individuals who frequent the city centre. 

"If we don’t know who they’re with then we can’t safeguard them.

"We have seen a reduction in repeat absconders and that is purely because the care provider is getting better information from the young people and the young people know it's in their interests to share that information so they don't have the police coming looking for them every five minutes."

The Respect Programme also aims to cut down the criminalisation of young people by encouraging care staff to think twice before calling police.

When a teenager kicks off at home it's unlikely police will be called but officers are contacted by children's units for what is sometimes normal teenaged behaviour.

Jonathan said: "The loose test for the guidance is, ‘well, see if this was your child’ - and a lot of staff take these children on as if they were their own kids - ‘would you phone the police?’ 

"And no you wouldn’t, if it was in a ‘traditional’ household." 

When Jonathan trains other officers in the Respect Programme he points out that 80% to 90% of children in care homes are there for care and supervision reasons, not offending behaviour.

He said: "That opens our eyes to why they’re there - neglect, mistreated by family, all manner of things that are extremely traumatic for children at that stage in their lives. 

"They’re not bad kids." 

While thousands of missing person reports each year in Glasgow relate to LAAC young people, hundreds more are people with dementia who have become confused and lost.

An important aid to police in the city in such situations is the Herbert Protocol - and like most good ideas, James said, it is really simple.

Family members can download and fill in a form that gives details of the person with dementia, including basics like name, age and photograph, but also adding places the person likes to go or important locations from their life.

James, who worked in the city centre and the Southside before joining the missing persons unit, said: "All these things are hugely important in the initial stages of a missing person investigation. 

"With someone with dementia that's exacerbated if there's inclement weather or if there's an area with a lot of large parks and open space, areas of water, that can be a huge risk."

The inspector added: "When my officers are turning up and the family members are very anxious and concerned for their loved ones it can be difficult to manage that and get information as quickly as possible.

"The HP is great because it allows the family in a calm period without drama to sit and collate that information so that if the worst happens and a relative with dementia is reported missing they can just give us that document.

"We can get cracking right away rather than family members trying to think when their heads are all fuzzed with stress.

"It's a fantastic bit of assistance for us and allows us to immediately start working on a missing person investigation with absolute confidence that the information we have is accurate. 

"It gives us the best possible chance of finding that person."

It is recommended that the form is kept somewhere prominent such as on the fridge or a kitchen noticeboard so that police can see it and use it quickly.

James recalled a recent case where an elderly woman with dementia went missing but cops had a head start in finding her thanks to a Herbert Protocol form.

Information on the form said she liked to go to local shops so police headed their first and a shopkeeper had spotted her within the past 10 minutes.

She was then quickly traced and returned to her family.

James said: "This was in a part of the city where we have a lot of open space, fields and farm land so a massive area we were potentially going to have to deal with.

"In a massive area you need some bit of information to give you an in. 

"Would we have gone to those shops eventually? Yes, but would we have got there so quickly? Probably not."

Moments like returning that lady back to her loved ones are, James said, what makes the job worthwhile. 

He added: "In missing persons investigations when someone is vulnerable it's so stressful.

"But it's so rewarding when you see the look on a family's face when you say we've got your loved one and they're alive and well - it's why you joined the police."