Young runaways are vulnerable to harm and require support to protect them. Researcher Emilie Smeaton highlights evidence from a Scottish government report about commissioning and delivering cost-effective emergency accommodation
At least 100,000 children and young people under the age of 16 run away each year in the UK for one night or more. While some young runaways are able to stay in a safe place provided by extended family or friends, others require emergency accommodation.
Refuges have been the most common form of emergency accommodation for young runaways but local authorities can also provide emergency beds in children’s homes and foster placements.
In 2010 the Scottish government commissioned a report to identify best practice in the commissioning and delivery of emergency accommodation for young runaways.
The report outlines a range of evidence-based good practice. It advises those commissioning emergency accommodation projects for young runaways that it can take up to two years to develop them and warns that sustainable funding is required for four to five years to enable awareness and usage of the project by children and young people through “word of mouth” recommendations.
Joint-funding arrangements between local authorities are recommended to reduce costs and increase service co-ordination and accessibility.
There is also evidence that emergency accommodation for young runaways should not be used as an extension of the care system to cover gaps in emergency statutory provision, but only as specialised provision for those who run away.
Positive outcomes are achieved when the model of emergency accommodation takes into account local need, the geographical setting and the backgrounds and characteristics of children and young people in the area because different models of emergency accommodation are suited to different geographical settings.
Children and young people have consistently highlighted the paramount importance of locating emergency accommodation for young runaways in a safe and confidential place. Although young people across cultures may run away for the same reasons, where, for example, family “honour” is an issue, there may be need for particularly high levels of confidentiality if a threat is perceived from an extended family.
For emergency accommodation to be effective, awareness-raising activities need to take place with children and young people, families, professionals and agencies that can refer individuals to emergency accommodation. Many of those who run away are not known to child protection services. Best practice involves outreach work, with services available 24 hours a day.
Similarly, there needs to be awareness-raising with professionals from a range of agencies that come into contact with children to raise levels of knowledge about running away, the legal context for emergency accommodation for young runaways, the importance of maintaining a confidential location, referral criteria and the importance of partnership working.
Although the Scottish government report does not address direct comparisons between different forms of emergency accommodation, the evidence reveals that refuge provision for young runaways has several benefits when compared with emergency foster placements and emergency provision in children’s homes.
For example, a refuge can meet the needs of children not known to statutory child protection services and divert them away from the care system.
Refuge provision is also more likely to have specialist expertise that result in young runaways’ needs being met through focused activity, helping to bring about a return home, if appropriate, and directing children to other services as required.
Refuges have been found to support the prevention of harm and ensure children’s safety as well as improving general well-being, mental health and school attendance and achievement. Research has not identified outcomes of other accommodation types, such as emergency fostering.
Although statutory agencies can deliver emergency accommodation for young runaways, evidence suggests there are advantages to third sector provision of emergency accommodation.
There may be a sense of “stigma” attached to local authority provision and a reluctance on the part of some children and families to access statutory services where there are child protection concerns. Children and young people may also have more positive perceptions of third sector services.
These views reinforce the need for there to be perceived independence of emergency accommodation projects for young runaways from statutory services. However, there needs to be a balance between this perceived independence and the need for strong links with statutory agencies in place to support children and young people.
Finally, the report highlights how significant costs are incurred from failing to respond to children and young people who run away; these can be as much as £500,000 per child. Emergency accommodation can play a vital role in reducing costs relating to future episodes of running away and, when delivered in line with best practice, can also prevent human and financial costs that affect local communities and wider society.
Best practice in delivery
● Raise awareness of emergency accommodation projects and how they operate.
● Provide emergency accommodation in a secret location.
● Address diversity issues, respond appropriately to culturally sensitive issues and embed anti-discriminatory practices.
● Emergency accommodation should be part of an integrated service to meet runaways’ needs.
● Share information between accommodation and other services.
● Develop protocols for assessing risk referrals and inter-agency working.
● Ensure accommodation is not used for general emergency care placements.
● Work with parents and carers.
● Provide support for young people after they have left emergency accommodation.
Best practice in commissioning
● Undertake scoping activity in the local area to identify local need.
● Acknowledge that development of emergency accommodation can take up to two years.
● Identify clear and identifiable outcomes of emergency accommodation.
● Ensure sustainable funding for four to five years allowing for development of the provision, establishment of awareness and usage of the emergency accommodation amongst children and young people and evaluation.
● Commission agencies with experience of delivering services for young runaways.
● Jointly fund refuge projects between local authorities to reduce costs and increases service co-ordination and accessibility.
Emilie Smeaton is research director at Paradigm Research
This article is published in the 14 April 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Providing a safe haven”
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