A study in 2003 discovered that one in nine Scottish children ran away before their 16th birthday. The statistic prompted the Scottish executive to fund a new refuge for young runaways.
A year later the Aberlour Child Care Trust set up a refuge in Glasgow called Running: Other Choices (ROC), and Grace Anne Williamson has been there from the start.
During its four-year existence, ROC has provided space for 161 young people to work through their reasons for running away. Her work has been recognised by the British Association of Social Workers Scotland, which has made Williamson its residential care worker of the year.
She says that the problems troubling young people are complex and they need the space the refuge provides to think them through.
“Young people run away for many reasons. They may have become involved in negative behaviour in the community they’d rather be with their friends than at home or they could be at risk within the home. Their way of coping is to run away.”
The unit has three beds and a core staff of 10 at its unnamed location in Glasgow. It provides daily one-to-one sessions for 12- to 15-year-olds to try and work out how they want to move on from their problems – namely, whether they should move into care or back into their homes.
Williamson’s role has therefore focused on finding ways to engage them in a way that other services may not have the time to do. Her patience is the reason for the award, says one of the girls who put her forward for the accolade after spending time in ROC.
“Grace Anne is good to talk to, listens to you and tries to understand your situation as best she can. She is easy to spend time with, makes you feel comfortable and tries to talk to you as much as possible.”
Young people are legally permitted to stay with the refuge for up to seven days, but workers stay in touch afterwards to monitor their progress. The refuge’s staff also provide advocacy for the people it helps when dealing with other organisations. This has helped to carve a niche for ROC in the institutional framework. “A lot of young people feel they aren’t listened to. We can do intense work with young people when not all social services are in a position to do that kind of work.”
The refuge is the latest step in a social work career that has seen Williamson cross national borders. Originally from Shetland, she completed a degree in social studies and a diploma in social work in Aberdeen, before working as a social worker back on the islands. After “fancying a change” in 2001, she went to Moscow to work in a children’s unit in the rundown outskirts of the city.
“I couldn’t speak a word of Russian so for my work I had an interpreter. To begin with it was very difficult. Some of the workers had never met a foreigner before. They were unsure why I would have left my home to go and live and work in a deprived area,” she explains.
After the staff warmed to her she began to focus on child-centred work – developing a playroom and running workshops. But in 2003 the programme organisers, VSO, cancelled the scheme and all the volunteers had to leave the unit.
Within six months of returning to the UK Williamson had joined ROC. Despite the fact that the unit in Moscow had a staff to user ratio of 25 to one, she says the problems facing services here and abroad boil down to the same thing. “It’s not that different to here, it’s just on a larger scale. Just like here, they need more staff and more resources.”
While the problems are similar, the signs of success are on a radically different scale. In Moscow, reducing the number of children in the unit from 100 to 70 over the two years was cause for celebration, whereas at ROC success is measured very differently.
“What we do is very task-orientated, but it’s quite difficult to look at refuge work in terms of success. I always feel the moment they come into the refuge and they’re in a safe place, that’s a success in itself.”
• More details at www.aberlour.org.uk