The breakdown of the family has long been blamed for many of society’s ills. Every political party has at some point or other made pronouncements on the importance of keeping families together. But none so far has come up with the right medicine for those that struggle to do so.
Proof of this is that, each year, a staggering 100,000 children and young people run away from home. As well as increased likelihood of them getting involved in criminal activity, 13% are physically assaulted and 8% are sexually abused.
One policewoman in Cheshire, fed up with seeing the same problems recurring in the same families year after year, decided
to do something about it. DC Alison T McCausland went on secondment to set up the Talk… Don’t Walk scheme to target children and families in crisis.
“I’ve worked for the constabulary in Warrington for 29 years,” she says. “I’m now seeing the grandchildren of the people I saw from when I first came here. The fundamental issues for young people and for the families don’t change, and that tends to
be a breakdown of communication within the family itself.”
Wanting to do more than finding runaway children and telling them not to do it again, McCausland looked around for preventive
solutions. “You don’t run away if you’re happy,” she says. “I interviewed a lot of young people, and I was appalled at the
police response at the time. We looked for the obvious, like whether they were being abused in some way. But we didn’t look
any further than that. But identifying those at risk is really important – you don’t have to physically leave in order to not be there. Emotional absenting is quite common.”
McCausland then painstakingly trawled through hundreds of police files to analyse runaway incidents over the course of a
year, logging the amount of police time and resources involved in each case. This gave an accurate estimate of the cost of dealing with runaways nationally: £340m a year.
Armed with this figure, McCausland generated a great deal of interest. Local MP Helen Southworth helped her gain a grant from a joint Treasury/Cabinet Office fund, the Invest to Save Budget. The clincher was her proof that intervening at the point children consider running away saves money.
The project, based within local charity The Relationship Centre, is relatively small but manages to provide one-to-one work
with children and their families, peer support, action planning and counselling. More and more referrals are being made, and
parents and children also often make the call themselves. McCausland emphasises that this would not be possible if it were not for close partnership working with schools, the police, community mental health services, youth offending teams and others.
The results so far have been amazing. In just over three years the project has saved more than £3m with an initial investment
of just £228,000, proof that a small intervention at the right time can have a huge impact. The number of runaways in the
Warrington area alone has been reduced by 76%, from 1,235 in 2003 to 297 in 2006.
These achievements have not been lost on potential funders or on the 200-odd MPs who have signed an Early Day Motion on
runaways (see Political support). McCausland hopes this interest will translate into more services developing around the country to end the current “postcode lottery”. She is now developing ways of sharing her expertise.
“I can honestly say that I love the job I do,” says McCausland. “It’s quite incredible to watch the changes in families.”
A young runaway
Three years ago Angela*, then 16, was a repeat runaway. She was involved in crime and was a victim of rape. “All I could think about was a way out, running seemed the only way, I just felt so alone,” she says.
In April 2004, Angela was referred to Talk…Don’t Walk. “It was the first time I had felt listened to; I mean really listened to for a very long time,” she recalls. “It wasn’t just me that was getting help, mum and dad were too. It wasn’t a magic wand overnight, but things did start to improve and they have continued to.
Previously whenever things got too much, I would run. Now I get in touch with my support worker instead. I dread to think what would have happened to me if I had continued to run.”
*Not her real name
Helen Southworth is the MP for Warrington South and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children, first
This article appeared in the 20 September issue under the headline “We can stop kids walking out”