A new peer group initiative to prevent children and young people going missing from home has been launched.

Missing Chats received £30,000 funding as part of the Violence and Vulnerability Programme established by the Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner (PFCC) and partners across Essex.

The programme funds projects to reduce the risk of young and vulnerable people being groomed into a life of crime and help those affected by gangs to leave.

Sheila Woodward, Essex County Council service manager for children & families, said: “Having this money means more young people can benefit from the programme, both by actively engaging but also through word of mouth.

Young people pass on their learning to their peers through conversation and interaction, therefore shaping a wider group of young people’s knowledge and understanding.”

Every child who goes missing is entitled to an independent Return Home interview, which is a statutory requirement.

In Essex, under Missing Chats, there is a programme called Choices - a peer-led six-week group programme for young women essentially at risk of going missing and child exploitation.

Children are allocated a Choices worker who works with them, their parents and social worker to explore the opportunities available to best support them.

The idea of the programme is to build positive relationships with young people, giving them time to build trust and to feel safe before they are able to fully engage.

“It focuses on building the young person’s sense of self-worth, feelings of self-efficacy and strengths,” said Ms Woodward. “Choices is about providing a safe place to learn and understand and reflect.

“A positive outcome may be disclosure or seeking help, but these must not be the criteria for success, as the simple engagement may in itself create disruption enabling the young person space to think.”

Roger Hirst, Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner for Essex, said: “We are investing in activities and interventions that stop the vulnerable being drawn into a life of crime and help those already involved to exit gangs safely.

“By investing in programmes like this one with partners across the county we are reaching out and tackling the root causes of gang activity while also robustly dealing with those who commit offences.”