When the only option is to flee

PUBLISHED: 18:50 05 December 2001 | UPDATED: 10:58 03 March 2010

EVEN the most level-headed adult could probably confess to a childhood tale of attempting to 'run away'. But for most, it was rarely induced by little more than a youthful tantrum.

EVEN the most level-headed adult could probably confess to a childhood tale of attempting to 'run away'. But for most, it was rarely induced by little more than a youthful tantrum.

Today, Debbie Watson looks at the new national research which claims hundreds of our county's children will run away for far more sinister reasons every year.

CHILD welfare has barely ever been as high profile a matter as it is today.

In recent months, the nation has seen so many cases of cruelty, neglect and suffering, that it has been left reeling in the evidently painful aftermath.

Victoria Climbie, Lauren Wright and John Smith are all far too familiar to Britain's news agenda – and reflect a frightening picture of an apparently 'caring' nation.

And tomorrow another piece of research is expected to show that perhaps our children are not as happy as we imagined them to be.

The Children's Society has revealed a set of statistics which suggest that youngsters are in fact fleeing their home – or care – sometimes from the age of just six.

Here in Suffolk alone, those findings highlight an estimation of some 195 under 11s running away each year.

It paints a bleak picture of how Britain's children are coping with their home, their school and their social lives. And at the most extreme level, it has to be acknowledged that perhaps these children are being driven away by the very worst physical, sexual and emotional abusers.

"This research explodes some of the traditional myths which suggest it is only older teenagers who run away from home," commented Zina Bourne, head of The Children's Society in the east of England.

"The fact is, there are a lot of younger children who feel that desperate too. It's a scary thought, but it will probably highlight the issue and make people realise the full extent of the reality."

Research already suggests that some 100,000 children under 16 run away every year. And while this is worrying enough in itself, the latest survey is the first one to fully clarify the position among the very young children of Britain.

'Child Runaways' is just one part of the Children's Society's ongoing effort to identify the problems which send youngsters out into street life.

Among its most worrying conclusions, it found that those who run away before the age of 11 are then more likely than older runaways to be sexually assaulted, sleep rough, and to have been regularly hit by parents.

"It is not necessarily because of abuse that youngsters decide to run away," said Zina. "But, unfortunately, it is very much an issue for some of the children who feel they have nowhere else to turn.

"There are others who find basic parent-child tension just too much for them to cope with, or they have been bullied at school or in the community.

"We simply cannot pigeon-hole the reasons or the consequences behind those that run away, all we do know, is that it is a very big problem and we want to raise public and government awareness of it as much as we can.

"We want to try to educate, and to get to the source of the problem before running away is even considered."

This survey, which also claims that Suffolk sees 850 runaways under 16 every year, is a prelude to a government report about social exclusion – specifically with regards to young people.

Based on the findings, the Society now wants to see numerous measures put in place in order to help those who may already have runaway, or may be susceptible to doing so.

The intention is to call upon the research to push for:

-A better network of streetwork services, providing a safe place for child runaways.

-Better protection for children against physical and sexual abuse.

-More awareness-raising activities in primary schools to prevent youngsters running away.

-Better anti-bullying strategies and support for those with educational needs.

While the survey seemingly suggests that such services are in dire need, Suffolk's care team are not wholly convinced we are facing a 'runaway crisis'.

"Personally, I do take issue with these research figures for Suffolk, because they are only perceived averages," commented county manager for children and family services, Cliff James.

"They need to be looked at with caution – but that is not to say we don't recognise the problem of children running away.

He said: "The reality is that children do run away from home, and it is an issue that we are obviously concerned about.

"But at the same time, most children who run away are only going away for a few hours, or just to the homes of relatives.

"The cases of children under 11 running away from this area, or of the youngsters running away to the city – that is very rare."

Nevertheless, Mr James accepts that it has happened.

He says there are plenty of reasons why adolescents may run, but very often it is related to family upsets.

"In a lot of cases we are seeing children who run away because there are new parents in their life," he said. "Step-families, and simple teenage upset can cause a great deal of tension in many homes.

"We also see situations where parents have become angry and frustrated with a child – perhaps over the failure to get home on time – and very often these legitimate concerns can cause a lot of tension."

Alternatively, Cliff admits that there are occasionally more sinister reasons for a child running away.

"There are times when children are running away from a situation of violence, or when they feel under threat," he remarked.

"Where we get a situation like that it is crucial that we investigate the matter very carefully. We may have to remove a child from a potentially dangerous situation – it is a sad fact that those cases do exist."

The fact remains, thankfully, that Suffolk does not have a vast number of very young runaways. But if nothing else, this week's survey should act as a sinister warning of what may be.

It should act as a reminder that Britain's youngsters are often more troubled, more threatened, or more in fear than they need be.

Suffolk has the valuable chance to fight against greater runaway statistics – we must now seize upon it wholeheartedly, in the interests of an entire generation.


According to Children's Society research:

n100,000 children under 16 run away from home or care every year in the UK.

nOne in four first-time runaways are under 11.

n80 children under the age of nine run away in Suffolk every year.

n23 per cent of runaways do so for the first time at the age of 13.

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