A young runaway found
himself virtually imprisoned by a relative before turning to Safe in the City
for help. Trust was required to keep him off the streets and accept emergency
foster ca re. Graham Hopkins reports on
how project leader Andy McCullough dealt with the issue.
McCullough, project leader, Safe in the City.
children and young people.
Client: John Kenyon,
who had just turned 16.
Case history: Safe in
the City has a free phoneline which links to confidential free national lines
such as Message Home, Childline and so on. Message Home contacted Safe in the
City having recommended that John contact the project. John had said that he
was calling from a phone box but wasn’t sure where he was. He had run away from
his family in Belgium and had made his way back to England, living with his
uncle. He said that his uncle, who travelled around and moved in and out of
relationships, had confined him to a room for about a year – only being allowed
out to clean the house. He was effectively his uncle’s slave.
Dilemma: The project
staff needed to involve social services and police in John’s case, but John was
fearful of this because he had been warned that if he spoke to either of them
he would end up in prison.
Risk factor: While
working with John there was a risk that he would run away from the
project and either return to his abusive uncle or end up living
on the street.
confidence having been won, John was successfully reunited with his mother
abroad. However, no charges were brought against John’s uncle.
The name of the young
person has been changed
By age 16, one in
nine young people will have run away from home or care.1 During a
year some 129,000 overnight runaway incidents happen in the UK. The government
has recognised that under-16 runaways have the weakest services and is
consulting on new guidelines.
One service for this
client group in Manchester is Safe in the City, a Children’s Society project
(although funded from other sources as well). Taking the runaway figures at
face value would mean that in the Greater Manchester area about 5,300 runaway
incidents will occur each year – more than 100 a week.
Most runaways are
overnight, but this was not the case for John Kenyon, who was referred to the
project through the Message Home service. “When John called he was unsure where
he was,” says project leader Andy McCullough. “Staff asked him what he could
see and he was able to pinpoint a building for us to go and meet him. We often
get calls from young people who aren’t sure of their information because they
are confused or frightened – so this wasn’t unusual. What was unusual was this
young man saying that he had been hidden away for a year.”
Two workers – male
and female – went out to meet him. “This was our first risk element – sussing
out what we were getting into,” continues McCullough. “Workers here often have
to think on their feet. They have to be looking who’s on a street corner, who’s
that talking over there? If I talk to this young person will a pimp get
The workers brought
John back. He was very nervous. “It was evident straightaway that something was
wrong – his clothes didn’t fit, his hair was matted with dirt, he was hungry,
he made no eye contact,” recalls McCullough. “The first thing to do wasn’t to
phone social services or police, but get him something to eat. Basic Maslow’s
‘hierarchy of need’: we’re not going to get the young people’s head unless they
feel warm, safe and have had something to eat.”
called a meeting. “We worked through our very clear criteria about when to
breach confidentiality. We decided that there was no way we could hold onto
this. However, there was a real risk that if we went to social services or
police, this young person might well do a runner.
“We spoke to John,
and explained about social services and the police and our relationship with
them,” he says. John was frightened because his uncle had said that if he said
anything to social services or police, they would put him in prison. “We took
that at face value,” says McCullough.
With a contact in
social services, McCullough began to explore options: “One would be to not
believe it and do nothing. Another would be to look at children’s homes – but
we counted that out immediately, not only because of his age but because they
can be quite harsh environments and he was extremely vulnerable. So we decided
to look at the third option – emergency foster care.”
As the day wore on,
John’s story emerged. He had lived with his mum in Belgium and was getting in
trouble, so came to live with his uncle in England. John was kept in a room,
and was only allowed out of his room to clean. He said he had a curtain to
sleep with and looked forward to winter so the fleas wouldn’t bite so badly.
“It felt far-fetched, but we set up a meeting with the social worker,” says
McCullough. “John agreed but only if we were with him and if it was held in our
building – which he knew.”
was no foster care placement available so John was placed in a men’s hostel.
“Not the most obvious place, not the safest place,” adds McCullough. “But it
would be a place where he would be quite anonymous; he’d be able to lock his
At the meeting the
next day, John “began to unpack his story”. McCullough recalls: “Social
services were incredibly patient with him. They spent three hours going through
his story and what would happen next: how the police would become involved and
that they might need him for evidence. They also managed to get a short-term
foster carer and contacted his mother, who had been looking for him. The police
did follow up with an investigation but didn’t find enough evidence.”
Through the trust of the project staff, John – a young
person potentially lost to the street – was reunited with his mother, moved
back to Belgium and picked up his education. And was safe again.
Children’s Society, Still Running Children on the Streets in the UK, 1999
Arguments for risk
– The project was
confident that it could create a safe space for John to talk. It was felt that
this could also be achieved by not breaching confidentiality (at least to begin
– The project
believed John. And through that he was able to tell his story. It would have
been very easy to have thought this was too far-fetched and done nothing.
– The local authority
and police gave the project time to create a package of care, and trusted the
voluntary sector to make an assessment of risk.
– The project’s
approach enables it to maintain relationships with people on the run, who don’t
always surrender information straightaway. If the “at risk of significant harm”
model was used, “we’d be phoning police and social services up everyday”, says
McCullough. “The reality is that they can’t just turn up on the streets and
pick them up. So, it’s about building up trust.“
– The risk was also
that it might not be true, that the project would be pursuing this complex and
time-consuming case for nothing.
– If true, there was
a risk that the child protection system would let him down. John was also
scared of social services and police. He was told they wouldn’t believe him;
that he’d end up in prison. Any attempt
to involve these authorities could be seen by him to be a breach of trust
resulting in him running away again – and putting himself at even greater risk.
– Indeed, he could
have just run off and never been seen again. As McCullough says: “We’re a voluntary sector agency – we cannot hold
people, we cannot lock them up. They vote with their feet. It challenges us to
work creatively because young people will soon let you know that they are not
– By placing John in
a men’s hostel he was vulnerable. These places can be packed, noisy and
The approach taken by
the project proved successful in helping John to return to safe adult care and
also highlights the dilemmas of working with this vulnerable group of young people,
writes Jim Wade.
Projects that work
with runaways have to operate with a high threshold of risk. We know that young
people are wary of approaching agencies for help, advice and support. Confidentiality
is therefore crucial. The project was aware that statutory involvement would be
necessary to achieve a satisfactory solution, but this needed to be balanced
against the risk of him running again.
The right balance
required sensitive negotiation by the project staff.
Young runaways need
an independent ear – someone to listen carefully, take them seriously, allow
them space to make supported decisions at their own pace. In all these
respects, the project did remarkably well. It also points to the valuable role
that the voluntary sector can play in mediating between young people and the
A positive resolution
would not have occurred without the collaboration between the project, police
and social services. The mutual respect between the practitioners involved
permitted an uninhibited focus on John’s needs.
The need to place
John temporarily in a men’s hostel was not satisfactory. Local authorities may
need to consider having designated refuge foster carers to provide short-term
respite, perhaps alongside a more general fostering role.
Jim Wade is co-author
of Lost from View, a study of missing persons in the UK.