My life missing

Why do people go missing and where do they go? Ciara Leeming speaks to one of the 180,000 people that are reported missing each year and the sister of another who has never been found

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Ju Blencowe disappeared on the anniversary of her mother’s death.

She put on her best suit, stuffed her mother’s cardigan into a bag and ordered a taxi. At the station, she boarded a train to London – utterly devoid of emotion.

“Things spiralled out of control,” she recalls. “I kept going for a year – depressed and mostly hiding in the house. Then I just upped and left, without any planning.”

In the capital she checked into the hotel where her parents had spent their honeymoon five decades previously. She had vague plans to end her life but instead spent days wandering aimlessly around the city and sleeping rough. By the time she contacted her wife, Jayne, back in Stafford she had been gone for a week. She was one of 180,000 people reported missing every year in Britain.

Of those, over 95,000 are adults and over 80,000 are children. Eighty per cent of adults are found within 24 hours – while four per cent vanish for a week or more.

Last week police experts, academics, policy makers and those with lived experience of going missing met in Liverpool to discuss the issue. Organised by the University of Liverpool’s School of Psychology and the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at Portsmouth University, the conference was sponsored by the UK Missing Persons Unit.

Blencowe gave one of the keynote speeches at the event and says the stress of preparing her talk led her to re-engage with specialist support services two years on.

In the aftermath of her return, she received counselling from the charity Missing People, which runs helplines for individuals who have been missing and their loved ones.

Reasons for leaving are as diverse as the missing population itself. Many people who go missing are going through a mental health crisis, while relationship breakdown and financial problems are behind some disappearances. Some people simply drift out of contact gradually. Young people may go missing as a result of child sexual exploitation or, increasingly, gang exploitation such as county lines drug dealing.

Some people go missing repeatedly, and there are strong links between the missing and the homeless population – with some rough sleepers not even realising they are listed as missing. In London, Missing People has partnered with St Mungo’s to cross-check service users with missing person investigations, and to inform them if they fall into this category.

The charity’s staff can pass on messages to family members on behalf of missing people who do not want direct contact. They can also set up phone calls and help reconnect people with their loved ones. Staff work with police to produce publicity to encourage missing people or those who have seen them to come forward.

Paul Joseph, head of helplines, says his team works with anyone affected by this issue – from those whose partner didn’t return from work the previous evening, to families whose loved ones have been missing several years. They even receive calls on occasion from people who are considering going missing. In these cases staff try to talk them out of the idea – or at least to discuss options aimed at keeping them as safe as possible.

When people have been missing more than a few months, the charity offers more bespoke support. Some counselling is available, and support workers check in regularly with families and are able to connect them with others in a similar position.

“It can be very isolating and people often say they are living in limbo, unable to move on,” says Joseph. “Friends may struggle to discuss the issue but we offer an impartial space to talk if they need it. If someone has a nightmare about their missing loved one, they can call us.”

Those left behind find themselves on an emotional rollercoaster, one day hoping for the best and the next fearing the worst. They often go back and forth over their own interactions with the missing person, looking for clues in their behaviour and blaming themselves.

Working with the police can be challenging and there is a financial burden in terms of lost work, search costs and in some cases looking after their loved one’s financial obligations. Direct debits continue coming out of bank accounts and mortgages must be paid.

“Whether someone has been missing one year or 20 years, the intensity and stress of the situation never lessens,” says Joseph. “At least when people are bereaved they learn to live with that loss and it can lessen somewhat. Those whose loved one is missing have no answers.”

Trish Cooper, whose brother Steven vanished from Golcar in Huddersfield 11 years ago, agrees: “You learn to cope but it’s really hard. We have no grave. People with missing loved ones only have a last known sighting. We have no place to spread ashes – and no ashes.”

Steven disappeared in the early hours of the morning on his 47th birthday. Grainy CCTV from a club over the road shows his front door opening and a shadowy figure leaving the house – followed by the car being driven away.

His 77-year-old mum is resigned to the fact she will probably never find out what happened – but it has been difficult to move on. Cooper moved house in 2008, the year her brother went missing.

“That was a really difficult decision,” she says. “I knew he would come to me first if he returned. I really didn’t want to move because I wanted to still be there for him. But it was something I needed to do.

“Sometimes it feels like we’re standing still but everyone else is running at 100mph, getting on with their lives. I want to shout and scream: ‘Why aren’t you standing still with us? Why aren’t you looking for Steven? Why is it just us?’”

She says Missing People and its network of families has helped her through the experience. “I don’t know where I’d be without them. If you feel like crying, you can cry. Knowing other families in a similar position has also helped because they understand what we are going through. They have all become family.”

As well as offering support, Missing People campaigns for improvements. The group wants a legal requirement that all returning adults must complete a debrief, as young people already do. When a missing child returns, the local authority must interview them about their situation. These are often carried out by organisations such as Barnardos and Missing People.

In 2010 the charity launched the Missing Rights campaign, which aims for a system of guardianship to be introduced so families can apply to manage a loved one’s affairs while they are away. Until now families have often struggled to keep their relatives’ affairs in order – with homes lost and finances sometimes damaged beyond repair. The Guardianship (Missing Persons) Act 2017 is due to finally come into effect this month, several years behind schedule.

The organisation also pushed for the introduction of Presumption of Death legislation, introduced in England and Wales in 2013. This allows loved ones to apply for a missing person to be presumed dead after seven years where a return is unlikely, in order to wrap up their legal affairs.

Although useful closure for many loved ones, the family of Steven Cooper found the experience of him being legally presumed dead deeply traumatic. The process was requested by his partner without their knowledge and his mother found out through a solicitor’s letter.

Trish Cooper says: “I’ll never forget that day. Having a High Court judge in Leeds ruling my brother is presumed dead was devastating. No one knows for sure he is dead – we have never found any evidence. To have some stranger presume him dead was horrendous.”

Even for people who do make it back, there can be huge challenges when it comes to rebuilding their lives. Family members may watch them all the time in case they disappear again, and the person who went missing may feel like a stranger in their own home. It may be difficult to talk frankly about what caused the disappearance, resulting in frustration.

For Blencowe there has also been judgement from outsiders about what happened to her.

“Someone once asked my wife how she could forgive me after I did that to her – went missing for a week. Jayne’s answer was that there was nothing to forgive because I was ill. She now says she had lost me before I actually went missing, because I was disappearing mentally and physically for a long while before it happened. We’re both extremely thankful the process was one of empowerment in the end. Really, I’ve had to lose myself in order to find myself anew.”

‘I returned but I’ve lost my identity’

Ju Blencowe spent 10 years caring for her mum at home as she battled Alzheimer’s. She was also working as a lecturer at Keele University but gradually things got too much. On the day her mother died in 2016, Blencowe also lost her job.

“I lost my mum, my best friend, my role as a carer and my career in one day,” she says. “It was a lot to deal with.”

In the weeks before her disappearance, Blencowe had watched the Missing People Choir – made up by people with missing loved ones along with staff and supporters of the charity – perform on Britain’s Got Talent. She now credits this for persuading her to return home after being missing for a week.

She says: “While I was in London I started to think about the choir and the fact I wasn’t alone in this. I used to be a musician and it was the only thing that could touch me at that point. I phoned my wife, who said the police were looking for me. At this point the grief hit me. I was crying and screaming that my mum had died. I went into a nearby theatre and they helped me.”

Rebuilding her life since this experience has been gradual. There has been counselling from Missing People, and a diagnosis of autism at the age of 56. For Blencowe, this holds the key to making sense of what happened to her. She has started songwriting again and is writing a book about her experiences.

“It’s quite cathartic because it explains a lot about why I have been so overwhelmed with my loss and unable to process it like other people might,” she says. “I believe I had a massive autistic shutdown when I went missing.

“Everything has changed for me. I haven’t worked since my mother died and we struggle financially. I’m still processing what happened. I’ve lost my identity as a lecturer, daughter, carer and I’ve found it very hard to re-establish myself within the community. I now lead quite a reclusive life.

“People don’t just go missing and come home – they stay lost for quite a long time after their return. It took people with expertise to help me put myself back together but I’m not the same as I was before. You never really find the person you’ve lost.”

‘I thought he would cool down and come home. But he never did’

Trish Cooper remembers the day her brother Steven went missing as if it was yesterday. “I received a text from his partner as I was getting ready for work, asking me to call her urgently,” she says. “She told me Steve was missing, and I assumed something must have happened between them – that he would cool down and come home. But he never did.”

Steven (pictured) was reported missing that day and the search began – although officers failed to log him on the Police National Computer as a vulnerable missing person, a key mistake.

He left the house in the early hours of that Monday morning without money, bank cards, passport or clothes. It was not until the following Sunday that the family learned his car had been found up a dirt track close to Loch Laggan, in the Scottish Highlands.

Searchers covered around 50 square miles of land and family members spent days searching for any sign of him and even paid for a private company to search the 20-mile loch, to no avail.

Cooper says: “Initially it was horrendous, I spent a lot of time texting and ringing everyone.
I went through Steve’s phone asking when had they last talked to him and how did he seem? I had to deal with the police. RAF Lossiemouth were out looking for him – as far as I’m aware he’s the only person they have never found, dead or alive.

“There is a presumption that he went in at the top of the loch and was pulled by the current to the hydroelectric dam. If that spat him out the other side he wouldn’t be found.”

Steven was unable to work due to a genetic condition called Marfan Syndrome, which affects the connective tissue. He struggled to cope with pain and often talked about the issue with his sister.

The weekend before he went missing, he celebrated his birthday with friends on Saturday, and on the Sunday visited the social club near his home. Cooper didn’t make the birthday party as she fell asleep and has gone back and forth over that fact for years.

“I’m quite upset with myself I didn’t go but I didn’t wake up until 10pm, and it felt too late to go out by then,” she says. “I still beat myself up about that. Should I have picked up some signs? Was my not going to the party some kind of catalyst for his disappearance?

“His disappearance makes no sense to me. If he did take his own life then he did it the way he wanted to and we’re never going to know. Wherever he is I hope he’s either at peace or has got some life somewhere and is living in his own little wonderland in bliss.”

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