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When a child is reported missing

Sherry Ward, a 14-year-old pupil at Mary Linwood School, Leicester, went missing on Thursday, January 26. She set off for school for a cookery lesson, and, says her grandmother Joan Hutchinson, "just didn't come back. She took nothing with her, not even a change of pants or a toothbrush."

The family had no contact with Sherry until early in March, when she rang her grandmother. "It was her grandad's birthday," says Joan Hutchinson, "and she rang. She said 'I'm all right Grandma, I'm with friends, and tell Grandad happy birthday'."

When Mrs Hutchinson asked why she had gone, Sherry said that it was because of bullying. She told her grandmother that she was no longer in Leicester, and would not be coming home yet. Then she said she had to go, and put the phone down. Mrs Hutchinson's exchange is not connected to the 1471 "callback" service - which only works on digital exchanges - so she could not find out where Sherry had rung from.

"I just sat and cried, once I'd put the phone down," says Joan Hutchinson, who has 16 grandchildren. "We'd begun to believe she was in a ditch somewhere. Now she's still missing but we do know she's alive. She was, on Friday, anyway. "

A few months before her disappearance, Sherry had been attacked outside school by three girls in an apparent case of mistaken identity. Her mother and grandmother had pressed her to tell them whether she was being bullied, but she had not been forthcoming. "We asked and asked if there was anything going on," says Mrs Hutchinson, a retired civil servant. "But they've got this code that they don't snitch. She told all sorts of fibs to cover it up."

Sherry had been playing truant from school, and had gone missing once before for five days. On the phone, she sounded normal. "I just didn't get the feeling she was going to come back yet," says Joan Hutchinson. "I've a funny feeling she might stay away until she doesn't have to go to school, until she's 16."

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