Posted: 07 October 2013

How to protect runaways? Listen to young people

The government recently finished its consultation on the requirements for local councils on how they should safeguard and protect young runaways. 

The statutory guidance on young runaways and children missing from home and care is a document that describes what actions local authorities must take to protect young runways.

We contributed to the consultation in a handful of ways. Most importantly, we spoke to the young people to find out what makes a real difference to them. We also spoke to practitioners from our projects supporting young runaways and we undertook an overview of practices in local authorities to establish a bigger picture.

What young people told us

The young people’s stories were the most affecting. Although each of them has a different story, there were certain things they told us were most important to them.

Young people told us:

  • 'The police they shout at you "You are wasting our time". They should be more sympathetic. Should find out the reasons young person is running away.'
  • 'Young people have different reasons for running away. Social workers do not understand and it gets worse.'
  • 'One social worker used to visit after each running away episode. It is good when someone cares.'

Please watch four young people tell us what they would tell the government is important to support young runaways. 

Running away is a warning sign, not 'choosing a lifestyle'

Children run away when they experience problems at home, in care or at school. Some children run away from neglectful or abusive situations that they feel powerless to change. 

To them running away is the only way to escape. Yet not all professionals see running away as a cry for help. 

Some professionals even believe that children who run away are:

  • ‘streetwise’
  • ‘choosing this lifestyle’ 
  • ‘know what they are getting into’. 

They may wrongly perceive teenagers as more resilient and able to cope with problems on their own so they do not offer them any help.

Informing young people of the dangers of running away

Young people do not always understand the risks, even as their situation becomes a crisis. The former runaways we spoke to were very clear that young people need better education about the risks of running away:

  • 'Young people should know what the risks are, they need to have them drilled down.'
  • 'It’s like grooming – I learnt about it here in the project.'
  • 'Sex education should provide education about running away and risks.'

Research suggests that of the 84,000 children who run away in England each year, more than 18,000 face significant danger, including:

  • being hurt or harmed while away
  • sleeping rough or staying with a stranger
  • stealing, begging or doing ‘other things’ in order to survive

Practitioners tell us it is important for different local services to share information about young people they are worried about, and to ensure that these young people can access help as early as possible. 

Listening to young people 

To protect children, professionals need to listen to them to understand their experiences, their worries and empower them to seek solutions. 

The new statutory guidance on missing children recognises the importance of placing children’s experiences at the centre of child protection response by offering young people an opportunity of a return interview - speaking to a professional they can trust after they have run away. 

We found that whether young people receive a return interview (speaking to a professional they can trust after they have run away) depends not on their need but on where they live. Worryingly, whether they run away from home or from care influences whether they receive the return interview. 

Practitioners and young people we spoke to believed that all young runaways are vulnerable, whether they run away from home or from care, and should be offered support and services they need when they need them. Young people told us:

  • 'They need to understand why and not to punish us.'
  • 'If you need help you should be able to ask for help.'
  • 'They need to start learning how to work with us.'
  • 'Don’t give up on us. Offer us help persistently until we agree.'

Making all young runaways safe

The final statutory guidance on young runaways and children missing from home or care is going to be published by the end of this year. 

We urge the government to listen to these messages and make sure that the guidance gives clear direction. Together we can bring about the changes needed to keep all young runaways safe.

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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