Escape to freedom

Throughout the animal kingdom, the instinct to flee is the dominant
reaction to threat, whether real or perceived. The horse racing
industry, for example, depends on that instinct, albeit subverted
by human beings. In a race, the fastest horse wins a pot of gold
for the owner. In the wild, the fastest horse stays alive.

It requires superhuman self-control to react to danger with a cool
head, for the flight instinct is also a governing factor across the
spectrum of human conduct. Unfortunately, we barely recognise the
instinct in daily life or appreciate how, in the absence of a
discernible escape route, our behaviour might fast collapse into
panic and our chances of physical or psychological survival plummet
correspondingly. Social and business interactions are, however,
characterised by various escape routes, often legally enforceable:
the right to say no to sex, divorce, get-out clauses in business
contracts and employment probationary periods are some of many
mechanisms designed to circumvent our being trapped in disagreeable
or threatening situations.

Tolerance of real or perceived discomfort or anxiety may vary
according to the person, the time, the place. But how many happy,
well adjusted children have not occasionally skipped school, stayed
out late, told white lies to their parents in order to snatch a
little freedom? How many dutiful, responsible adults have not
occasionally feigned sickness to gain a day off work? We have an
ambivalent attitude, too often determined by social class and
labelling, towards manifestations of the flight instinct.
Youngsters who backpack around the world are adventurous,
youngsters who flee care reprobate; escaped prisoners of war are
heroic, escaped convicts a danger to society. Yet they are all
propelled by the same instinct and motivated by the fundamental
need to reclaim control over their lives.

As a child, I was cherished and content, yet would “run away” with
the family dog regularly and noisily – as far as the garden gate or
the lane beyond. Eventually, the prospect of hunger and cold forced
me back, but I was never contrite. Like all children, I needed
liberty, opportunities for adventure, safety valves for the
pressures built up by teachers, parents and life’s general
obligations, and all without threat of rejection. Like all
children, I over-reached myself occasionally or over-stepped
boundaries, but the safety net was always there and the
consequences for misbehaviour always reasonable. Yet, had I been a
looked-after child, I am sure that my behaviour would have been
interpreted as dysfunctional, simply by virtue of my status.

When I worked in residential child care, runaways, whether
potential or actual, topped the list of staff anxieties. While the
child was missing, blame was heaped on the staff; on return, the
child reaped the whirlwind. Absconders were punished, humiliated,
even locked in their rooms; persistent absconders often found
themselves transferred to secure accommodation.

Whatever reason an absconder put forward for having fled would be
denigrated and dismissed out of hand. The Waterhouse Report of the
inquiry into child abuse in homes in north Wales is littered with
examples of children absconding from abusive institutions,
reporting the offences to the police and being returned to the
hands of the abusers.1 The tribunal was essentially a
historic investigation and it would be reasonable to assume that
the inspirations behind absconding are now better understood and
the management of absconders less callous than in the dark days of
the 1970s and 1980s. Although some progress has been made, a
Department of Health research paper paints a picture that is still

Less than 1 per cent of young people are in residential or foster
care. But 30 per cent of reported absconders are from this group.
Clearly, substitute care implies a high risk of absconding and will
continue to do so while its own contribution to the problem remains

I sometimes resented the control my parents wielded because it
seemed to interfere with my capacity to be an individual. How much,
therefore, might the average young person resent the control of
strangers, particularly where it is reinforced by officialdom? On 9
October, the Liverpool Daily Post reported that Anthony
John Witchell had been jailed for eight months for assisting a
teenage girl to abscond from care. The irony lies in the fact that
she was placed in care after alleging that Witchell had abused her.
For this girl, it seems that the devil she knew was a lesser

1 Ronald Waterhouse, Lost
in Care
, The Stationery Office, 2000

2 Nina Biehal and Jim Wade, Children Who Go
, Department of Health, 2002

Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child care
worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’

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