Advice for social workers supporting young people who run away

CC Inform expert Emilie Smeaton answers social workers' questions on supporting children who run away or go missing

Photo: Rex Features (posed by model)

Working with young people who run away or go missing can be a challenging area for social workers, while reports suggest not all councils are routinely carrying out return interviews to establish the cause of missing incidents and identify safeguarding needs.

So, we put social workers’ questions to Emilie Smeaton, author of our guide to supporting young runaways. Here are her answers.

Q: What, if anything, can social workers (or foster carers and residential workers) do to prevent young people in care from running away?

A: My guide to supporting young runaways offers some ways in which social workers, foster carers and residential workers can work to prevent young people in care from running away.

Many young people who are in care start to run away prior to their entry into the care system and there is need to carry out a risk assessment once the young person enters care.

This should include information-gathering about previous running away incidents, and identify targeted preventative and diversionary measures alongside ensuring the child or young person’s needs are met.

Q. What are the main challenges that social workers face when supporting young runaways, and why?

A: Evidence from research and practice consistently reveals that developing a trusting relationship over time with a child or young person who runs away is key to supporting young runaways.

This can be a challenge in itself for social workers who, due to demands of case work, managers and their local authority, are not able to give the time and scope for working in an informal manner that is crucial for developing a relationship based upon trust.

In addition, many young runaways and their families have negative perceptions of statutory agencies which is a barrier for social workers in gaining young runaways’ trust and their willingness to engage with them.

However, there are social workers who have worked hard to overcome these barriers and children and young people have reported that their social worker has been supportive to them and worked hard to ensure the child or young person’s needs are met.

Q. Are there any local authorities or voluntary sector organisations that excel in this area? If so, which ones?

A: The Children’ Society has consistently worked to address the need of young runaways and has developed learning and a whole programme of research and practice.

The charity’s website includes a resource page, which provides a wealth of information that draws upon a legacy of working with young runaways that are of immense value to other professionals.

There are also good local projects that provide an excellent service for the children and young people they work with. ‘Safe@Last’ in South Yorkshire is one such organisation – they provide the only refuge accommodation for young runaways in the country.

While there are local authorities taking promising steps in their work with young runaways, there is a general need to improve preventative and responsive measures to meet the needs of young runaways and their families across the country.

Q: Do you feel local and central government take the issue of young runaways seriously enough?

A: The welcome publication of the statutory guidance by the Department of Education clearly signifies that the government is giving the issue of young runaways some prominence and importance.

However, we need funding to accompany this guidance as local authorities’ budgets are over-stretched and with no accompanying funding it’s difficult to effectively implement this guidance.

Specialist projects working to meet the needs of young runaways often survive on shoestring budgets and, due to short-term funding, are not able to guarantee that their important work with vulnerable children and young people and their families is able to continue.

To effectively meet the needs of young runaways, we need further action from central government. For example, evidence from research and practice consistently reveals the need for safe accommodation for young people who run away, or are at risk of doing so, yet governments consistently shy away from addressing this important need.

Other matters such as the national collation of numbers of young runaways are also required if the government is to seriously address running away; it’s hard to set appropriate responses until we know how many young people run away.

The weight given to meeting the needs young runaways by local authorities is not consistent across the country. We know that in some local areas strategic and operational responses are set in place with the local authority working in partnership with other agencies.

However, in other local areas, especially where there is no specialist runaways’ service, provision for these vulnerable children and young people is patchy or non-existent.

Q: Do you know what percentage of councils routinely carry out return interviews with young runaways?

A: It is not known exactly what percentage of local authorities routinely carry out return interviews with young runaways. However, in 2012, when previous statutory guidance stated the requirement for return interviews, The Children’s Society sent Freedom of Information requests to local authorities to establish the level of provision of return interviews.

Of the 134 local authorities who responded, only 29% offered return interviews to children and young people missing from home and 49% offered return interviews to children and young people missing from care for the period April to December 2012.

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