Posted: 26 June 2013

New guidance for helping young runaways is useful but not perfect

The eagerly awaited revision to statutory guidance on children missing from home or care was published today. As the guidance goes into a consultation by the Department of Education, our policy adviser Iryna Pona explains what the guidance means for young people's safety, and the next step before for the new guidance.

Q: Can you explain what the statutory guidance is? Why is it important? 

A: Statutory guidance states the legal duties and responsibilities that local authorities and other local agencies have to adhere to. It also explains how they can better work together to ensure that best possible standard of care and protection for children in their area. 

This revised guidance focusses on what local agencies must do to safeguard some of the most vulnerable children in our society. These are children who run away or go missing from their family home or their care placement. 

Q: Why is safeguarding of young runaways important? 

A: Children running away is a big issue. Our research shows that every year around 100,000 run away from home or care. Children run away in every part of our country. Many run away on more than one occasion - our research shows that at least 55% had run away more than once and 22% had run away three times or more.

Some children - as many as 70 children a day - are forced to leave home by their parents or cares. Many are never reported as missing to the police. 

Children run away from conflict and neglectful parenting, from problems at home or school and when they do not feel happy or safe. When children go missing, they are at very serious risk of physical abuse, sexual exploitation and are sometimes desperate enough to rob or steal to survive. 

Many children who run away do not seek help. Some don’t seek help because there is little help available and they may not even be aware of it. Most don’t ASK for help because they don’t trust professionals. The APPG inquiry into children missing form care, which we supported last year, showed that it is not a rare occurrence for these vulnerable children to be labelled as ‘streetwise’, ‘troublesome’ or even ‘promiscuous’ by professionals and not to be offered any help. No wonder that children feel left on their own to deal with their problems.   

Q: I hear there are good things in this guidance. What are they?

A: This guidance is the government’s response to the failings of the system outlined in the APPG inquiry into children missing from care. It attempts to address four key issues. 

1. It states that local authorities and local safeguarding children’s boards are ultimately responsible for safeguarding children and young people who run away from home or care and they should ensure that safeguarding children is everybody’s business in their local area.

2. It tells local agencies that they should share the same definitions of missing and absent children. It also says that data should be shared between the police and children’s services to ensure that local agencies are aware of who these vulnerable children are as early as possible.

3. It tells local agencies that they must work better together and talk to each other to identify earlier and respond timely to signs of things not being right in child’s life and protecting children from falling prey to predatory individuals who want to exploit them.

4. The guidance makes it clear that young runaways should have an opportunity to talk to an independent professional about their experience when they return home after the missing episode. 

Q: What types of support can be strengthened further? Will this guidance be enough?

A: The guidance sends very clear message about the vulnerability of missing looked after children and how services should respond when children run away from their care placements. Making sure that all professionals involved with a looked after child understand the significance of this guidance and follow it is going to be a challenge.

Children who go missing from their family homes are equally vulnerable. The new police definitions of missing and absent may leave these children without any help for a very long time or until the crisis strikes. This should not be allowed to happen. 

Both things can be addressed if the implementation of the finalised guidance is driven forward centrally and monitored effectively by inspectorates with powers to challenge inadequate local practices. 

And the most important thing is to ensure that children’s experiences and concerns are heard as early as possible. By professionals who can empathise and help find solutions before things escalate into a crisis. Barriers to independent return interviews provision have to go.  

As the Department for Education begins its consultation, this is a good time to start listening to children.

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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