Refuges for young runaways

The closure of the London Refuge Centre has left only five beds in Britain for vulnerable young runaways. Camilla Pemberton looks at the policy gaps that need to be filled

The closure of the London Refuge Centre has left only five beds in Britain for vulnerable young runaways. Camilla Pemberton looks at the policy gaps that need to be filled

Jemma was 14 when she ran away from home. She spent her first night on a park bench, her second in an abandoned car and her third “hidden behind dustbins”. By her second week she was using heroin and by her fourth she was prostituting herself to pay for it. She never returned home. Now 16, Jemma lives in a hostel and is undergoing drug treatment.

“Runaways flee problems including abuse, forced marriages, family breakdown or the strain of being a young carer,” says Andy McCullough, chief executive of runaways charity Railway Children. “They feel they have no other choice, but the places they run to are just as dangerous.”

Of the 100,000 children who run away in the UK every year, one in five, like Jemma, will come to harm, according to research by The Children’s Society. Highlighting the risks, Barnardo’s published research this month which found that 55% of children helped by its specialist sexual exploitation services went missing regularly.

“We need to challenge the perception that runaways are streetwise or street-safe,” says Martin Houghton-Brown, chief executive of Missing People. “About 64,000 children call our helplines every year, often from phone boxes in the middle of the night. They are frightened and vulnerable and they need an effective and immediate response.”

A recent analysis of serious case reviews by the London Safeguarding Children Board identified services for young runaways as an issue where local authorities were failing. “Children who go missing very quickly become at risk of sexual exploitation and involvement in abuse rings, criminality and drug abuse. London authorities need to address the under-reporting of this issue and the lack of attention to the issue of young runaways,” the report stated.

Councils have to provide emergency accommodation for any child under 16 who cannot return home, but Houghton-Brown finds this is not always immediately available, or suitable. “In some areas it can take hours to engage with children’s services. The police end up being the most proactive response, but they are not necessarily the right one.”

Jemma was reluctant to go into emergency accommodation. “I knew the police and social workers would have to contact my stepfather. I just wanted somewhere safe to go, without needing anyone’s say so.”

Section 51 of the Children Act 1989 recognised there would be children in this position. It made provisions for organisations to set up short-term refuges, to which children can self-refer and stay for up to 14 days while plans for their safety are made. A 2009 report by the Children’s Society, commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, recommended that all high areas of need should have this type of provision.

Despite this, there are now only five safe beds, in two refuges, in the UK. Last month, the London Refuge – which provided shelter for 250 young people every year and was the only registered safe house outside Scotland or South Yorkshire – was forced to close after losing its core funding.

Its closure was well-publicised but the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services claimed it would not affect the ability of councils to protect runaways. However, Brian Smith, area manager of St Christopher’s, the charity which ran the refuge, says local authorities may not be best equipped to handle runaways.

“When children make a legitimate cry for help they need to know where they can go quickly, without needing a referral from statutory services or parental consent,” he says. “Statutory services cannot safeguard these children without an emergency protection order or an interim care order, but a refuge can.

“The sad reality is that many of the children who came to us had chosen to sleep rough rather than access statutory services. Once children are sleeping rough they are highly vulnerable. We believe the loss of the refuge has increased that risk exponentially.”

All eyes are now on the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) centre, which the government recently announced as the national lead on missing children. So far they have not published a strategy on runaways and could not speak to Community Care during the pre-election period in which civil servants are obliged to remain silent.

McCullough wants more section 51 accommodation to be set up and for councils to clarify the provision they have for runaways in their areas. He is also seeking to have the Children Act 2004 amended to clarify councils’ roles and responsibilities in safeguarding children at risk, both at home and on the streets.

“I have seen a lot of guidance come and go over the past 20 years – such as the recent Missing Persons Taskforce report which didn’t address funding issues,” he says. “It all offers good pointers but falls short of providing national standards. Not until there is a legislative basis will money be ring-fenced for more adequate provision,” he says.

Wendy Shepherd, programme manager at Barnardo’s, urges politicians to “stop this short-term thinking about our young people today and invest for the future”. Struggling councils, she claims, regard refuges as expensive. Shepherd says: “They are not recognising the hidden long-term costs per child: the 15 times in court, the six stints in prison, the 20 times at the doctors and the sheer human misery of wasted potential.”

Barry Sheerman, chair of the House of Commons’ Children, Schools and Families Select Committee until parliament was dissolved last month, agrees. “Not to have a centrally-located focal point where children can go to find a safe bed, at least in our major cities, seems bizarre,” he says. “This is something I will continue to campaign for.”

But ultimately, according to McCullough, the best solution is prevention. “Social workers need to think about the risk of ­running away in every assessment they do and try to put services in place to reduce that risk.”

Case study

SAFE@LAST Refuge, South Yorkshire: Joint working holds key at England’s last shelter

Sam, 15, fled to South Yorkshire in 2008 to live with his girlfriend in a flat, where they survived by stealing and dealing drugs. When the relationship broke down a year later, he found himself homeless.

His drugs worker sent him to what is now the only refuge in England – Safe@Last in South Yorkshire. The on-call manager met Sam and did a risk assessment, whereupon he was admitted immediately to the refuge. The on-call manager worked closely with Sam’s drugs worker and helped him to make contact with his family. He was returned safely to his family a few days later.

Safe@Last runs a two-bed refuge offering direct access accommodation to runaways in Rotherham, Doncaster, Barnsley and Sheffield.

All four local authorities work to joint “running away” protocols with South Yorkshire Police and Safe@Last so each knows when one of their young people is involved with the refuge.

“This means that children’s services don’t have to fund us upfront; they just pay for the services that they use,” says Tracy Haycox, strategic runaway services director at Safe@Last. “Our work also means that a child’s situation doesn’t have to trigger looked-after status.”

The refuge runs a 24-hour helpline, a missing persons service and a preventive programme too.


Profile of young runaways

● Nearly one in 10 were sexually abused at home.

● Every child has used drugs or alcohol.

● Two-thirds have been victims of violence on the streets.

● More than two-thirds have mental health issues.

● Two-thirds of runaway children are not reported missing by parents or carers.

● Less than 5% of runaways seek help from agencies like the police or social services.

Source: Off the Radar, Railway Children, 2009

This article is published in the 6 May issue of Community Care magazine under the heading No room at the refuge

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.