Do not give up on young runaways
Children’s own experiences must be at the heart of any response
‘Do not give up on kids. Offer us help persistently until we accept’
These are the words of the young person I met last week in one of our projects I visited for a consultation event on the revised statutory guidance for children who run away or go missing from home or care. She was sharing her experiences of support which started with a return interview after she ran away from home, to which she reluctantly agreed due to a persistent offer from the project worker.
Protecting children well means making their experiences the focus of professional interventions. To really keep them safe from neglect and abuse we need to empower them to understand what is happening to them and to seek help when they feel overwhelmed by their problems.
Young people who run away from home or care in particular need professionals to listen to them. Research shows that children run away from neglectful parenting and conflict at home, drug and alcohol abuse, when they are unhappy in their care placements or because they are enticed away by predatory individuals seeking to exploit their vulnerabilities.
Unfortunately, as cases from all around the country show, these individuals with criminal intentions succeed while professionals fail to spot the signs that a child is in need of help and wrongly judge these children to be ‘troublemakers’, ‘streetwise’ or ‘time wasters’.
Return interviews are an opportunity for children to explain what issues make them run away
The statutory guidance on children who run away or go missing from home or care requires local authorities to take one particular action in relation to missing children to stop them falling through the gaps in services. This action is to offer them a return interview – an in-depth conversation a trained and independent professional should have with a young person who has run away or been missing to find out their reasons for running away, establishing where they went and who they were with. Most importantly its aim is to come up with an offer of support that will reduce the need for a child to run away again.
Many areas fail to have checks in place to identify children who need help
The report we published today shows that in too many areas this key safeguard is either absent altogether or not offered to all children who may benefit.
Worryingly, we also found out that children who run away or go missing from home are considerably more likely to miss out on access to return interviews. Only one in four local authorities offer return interviews to children who go missing from home. Not because they need it less but because there seems to be a lack of clarity over whose responsibility it is to offer return interviews for children who run away from home or care.
In many cases local authorities rely on the police to tell them whether the child running away from home needs support based on information they have picked up through the police safe and well checks when the child is found.
Opportunities to bring about change
The on-going Department for Education consultation on the revised statutory guidance on missing children offers an important opportunity to address this shortcoming in local provision for young runaways.
The government should make it clear in the guidance that local authorities must offer return interviews to children missing from home as well as those missing from care. Lend us your support, and ask the government to do this.
Changes to how Ofsted inspects child protection arrangements at the local level also offer an opportunity to make sure that the new guidance is not misinterpreted locally but implemented in full.
These two changes will ensure that an offer of help is available to young runaways, particularly those who go missing from home, where now it is not.
Most importantly, this will give more young runaways an opportunity to be listened to by adults who won’t give up on them.