By Lynette Horsburgh & Tom Mullen
The family of missing Nicola Bulley have said “appalling” speculation surrounding her private life “needs to stop”.
The 45-year-old went missing on 27 January during a riverside dog walk in St Michael’s on Wyre in Lancashire.
Lancashire Police has faced a backlash for revealing she had ongoing struggles with alcohol and the menopause.
The force said it has referred itself to the police watchdog over contact it had with her before she vanished.
On Thursday her family said she would not have wanted the information released, but police had kept them informed.
In a new statement, they said: “As a family, we were aware beforehand that Lancashire Police, last night, released a statement with some personal details about our Nikki.
“Although we know that Nikki would not have wanted this, there are people out there speculating and threatening to sell stories about her.
“This is appalling and needs to stop.
“The police know the truth about Nikki and now the public need to focus on finding her.”
Lancashire Police referred itself on Thursday to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) regarding an incident before Ms Bulley’s disappearance when officers attended her home.
The force said it was called to a “concern for welfare report” and health professionals also attended on 10 January. It said no arrests were made.
A force spokesman said the referral “relates solely to our interaction with the family on that date and does not relate to the wider missing from home investigation”.
An IOPC spokesman said: “This afternoon we received a referral from Lancashire Constabulary regarding contact the force had with Nicola Bulley on 10 January, prior to her disappearance.”
He said the watchdog was assessing the available information to determine whether an investigation was required.
Lancashire Police had described Ms Bulley as vulnerable and said she was classed as a “high-risk” missing person immediately after her partner Paul Ansell reported her disappearance.
The force initially declined to elaborate but later disclosed further details, a move which it was criticised for.
Zoë Billingham, the chairwoman of an NHS mental health trust and formerly Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary, told BBC Radio 4 the comments “stopped me in my tracks”.
“Why on earth was this information even vaguely relevant to an investigation that’s 20 days on?” she said.
“If there are issues relating to Nicola that needed to be put in the public domain, why wasn’t this done earlier?
“And why was such personal information, such potentially sensitive information, disclosed?”
She said there was a need to consider “what message this sends to women”.
“What confidence will women have about reporting their mum or sister to police as missing if there is this fear that very deeply personal information is going to be put into the public domain for no apparent reason?” she said.
Ms Bulley’s family said she had suffered “significant” side effects due to the perimenopause, including “brain fog” and “restless sleep”.
They said she was taking hormone replacement therapy but it had given her “intense headaches” which caused her to stop the treatment “thinking that may have helped her, but only ended up causing this crisis”.
“The public focus has to be on finding her and not making up wild theories about her personal life,” they said.
“Nikki is such a wonderful daughter, sister, partner and mother and is missed dearly.”
Appealing directly to Ms Bulley, they added: “Nikki, we hope you are reading this and know that we love you so much and your girls want a cuddle.
Ms Bulley’s parents, Ernest and Dot Bulley, left a yellow ribbon tied to a bridge over the River Wyre near where their daughter went missing, with the message: “We pray every day for you.”
Ms Bulley disappeared while walking her springer spaniel, Willow, after dropping off her two daughters at school.
Her phone was found still connected to a work conference call.
Police and specialist teams have since mounted a huge search, but no trace of her has been found.
Home Office Minister Robert Jenrick said Lancashire Police’s statement had included “unusual comments”.
But he added: “We’re not privy to the police’s conversations with Nicola Bulley’s family and I don’t think it would be right for us to speculate on why they’ve chosen to make those comments.
“This is a live investigation, we have to let the police get on with it and not add to the already considerable level of speculation surrounding the case.”
A Home Office spokesperson added: “The Home Secretary and Policing Minister are receiving regular updates from Lancashire Police on its handling of this case, including why personal details about Nicola was briefed out at this stage of the investigation.”
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper told the BBC: “I think there are concerns because the information they set out was very unusual, and I would want to know more from Lancashire Police about the reasons for doing this.”
Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Andrew Snowden said the investigation was under the direction and control of Chief Constable Chris Rowley.
He said: “Lancashire Police are being as transparent as they can be on what is an incredibly sensitive and complex case.
“The unprecedented media and public interest in this case, whilst welcomed for appeals for information, is challenging for the family and friends of Nicola and the officers and police staff dealing with unsubstantiated rumours and speculation on a daily basis.”
Lancashire Police is yet to respond to the criticism it has faced.
Meanwhile, it confirmed social media influencer Dan Duffy had been fined after joining the search for the missing mother.
The 36-year-old posted a video of himself being arrested by police on his YouTube channel.
Police said he was handed a fixed penalty notice under section 4 of the Public Order Act – fear or provocation of violence.
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