Q&A with Railway children
As part of Mumsnet's ongoing campaign with Aviva and Railway Children to raise awareness about runaway children, Andy McCullough, head of policy and strategy at Railway Children, and Charlie Hedges from CEOP, the organisation that deals with child exploitation and online protection, answer your questions.
Railway Children is working with Aviva to provide help and support to children under 16 who have run away from home, or are at risk of doing so. Until the end of 2012, Aviva have up to £100,000 to donate to Railway Children. Find out how you can help support the cause through Mumsnet.
Q. Bossybritches22: What is the biggest reason children give for running away from home?
A. Andy McCullough: Research shows that having a child run away from home can happen to anyone, with as many children running away from affluent homes as from low-income households. Running away is slightly more common among girls than boys. A lot of teenagers who run away decide to do so on the spur of the moment. This means they probably won't have thought about where they'll go, where they'll sleep, how they'll get access to money or how running away might affect their family.
Often, they're running away from problems at home or at school. Some are dealing with very serious issues at home, such as neglect, drug and alcohol addiction (their own or their parents), mental health problems, violence and abuse. A few teens are even forced to leave home by their parents or carers.
Others come from perfectly 'normal' family backgrounds and are trying to escape common problems, such as bullying, relationship difficulties, loneliness or family breakdown. You can read more info here.
It's difficult to put together an exhaustive list of signs that your teenager might be thinking about running away from home. Needless to say, every child handles problems or deals with stress in different ways. But here's a list of things to watch out for if you're worried.
It's true to say that anecdotal research shows there is a strong link between family relationships and running away. Children who have experienced high levels of family conflict are six times as likely to have run away in the last year.
Q. Hulababy: What is the average age of a runaway child? And is it more likely to be girls or boys?
A. Andy McCullough: Research shows that girls are very slightly more likely to run away, but boys tend to stay away for longer.
The most common age of those children who do run away from home is between 13 and 15 years, however a third of those who run away are aged 12 and under.
Q. Purplemonstermum: What percentage of children who run away have shown or go on to develop other problems eg drink/drug abuse, self-harm etc? In other words, is running away normally an early warning sign of (future) distress or something people only do after having tried several other strategies to manage existing problems?
A. Andy McCullough: Running away from home is almost always a sign that things aren't going well in a child's life. If the things that are making them run aren't addressed, they end up spending more and more time away from home, and could end up on the streets, where there is a high risk of drug and/or alcohol use and self-harm. Our research has found that children who had been on the streets for four weeks or longer had all used drugs or alcohol, and two-thirds had had mental health issues, attempted suicide or self-harmed.
On the positive side, if running away is taken seriously and issues identified and addressed promptly, the risk is substantially reduced. This is why we advocate providing services for young people before during and after episodes of running away. There are many good examples in our partner projects of young people getting one-to-one support with their issues and no longer run away.
For more information, take a look at these pages.
Q. Supermam: Is the divide between urban and rural areas equal in the runaways statistics? Do local authorities have specific social workers who help runaways?
A. Andy McCullough: Research has shown that the variation in running away rates between urban and rural areas is not statistically significant. For that reason we usually say there is little difference across geographical area.
And to answer your second question, statutory guidance requires local authorities to carry out Return Home Interviews for children who have run away from home, but we know that this doesn't happen consistently in all areas.
Tragedies such as Baby P, alongside funding cuts, mean that some local authorities focus more on younger children and often see young people as lower priority. Where they do support projects, the focus can be mainly on children in care. Some do have good partnerships with other organisations who they commission to deliver Return Home Interviews, but it is fair to say that support for young runaways is patchy and can depend on where you live - a postcode lottery.
Q. riverroise: Proportionally, are children who are in local authority care more likely to run away than children living with their families?
A. Andy McCullough: Yes, research shows that children in care are three times more likely to run away than other children. It's been estimated that 10,000 children go missing from care each year, with 5,000 away for longer than 24 hours. It is also true to say this issue can affect anyone - many children also run away from affluent homes.
Q. riverroise: Are children who live with a step-parent more likely to run away than those not living with a step-parent?
A. Andy McCullough: Yes, research has found higher rates of running away among young people in stepfamilies. There are also higher rates among young people who have had a change in the adults they live within the last 12 months.
Q. OhWesternWind: My daughter ran away, briefly, thank goodness, last year whilst she was in an upset state about some family problems. What is the best way to speak to a youngish child (she's now ten) about the real dangers of running away, particularly for a girl, without frightening her unnecessarily?
A. Andy McCullough: It's always going to be tricky to broach the subject of running away and the reasons behind it with a child. The key is to find the right moment to have that discussion. You know your child better than anyone else and if you start noticing signs and changes in your daughter's behaviour that might suggest she is thinking about running away again, then try and talk to her to find out what's going on. You can also use the chance to understand why she ran away last year, where she went to, how she felt and why she decided to run away. This will present the opportunity to talk about what your daughter might do if she encountered those feelings again and whether she would approach it differently. It will also allow you to talk about some of the risks and dangers she might be exposed to if she did it again. It's important throughout to make her feel comfortable in coming to you and talking about it when she starts feeling those things again.
You might also want to take a look at a short film produced by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre called My Choice. Watch it beforehand to see whether it's age-appropriate for your daughter. The film explores some of the issues that young people may face at home that could contribute to them running away, and could act as a jumping off point to start a conversation with her. Alternatively SAFE@LAST have a number of animated videos online with scenarios of running away that may be also be useful as discussion starters.
Railway Children also has a number of resources that covers the issues and risks of running away, including a Girls in Action Pack and school resource guide aimed at raising awareness of the subject amongst young persons. Getting teachers and scout leaders to talk about the subject can help to reinforce the message that they are not alone and should always talk to someone when they find themselves in difficult situations. You can find these here.
At the end of the day, the important thing is to be open and honest and encourage your daughter to talk to you or a trusted adult before things reach a crisis point again.
Q. CelstialNaviagation: I'm thinking about how hard it is for a child to verbalise and disclose abuse within their family. How is a child's situation assessed before they are returned to their family and what support is put in place for the child after running away and being returned, when the reason for their leaving home is unknown?
A. Andy McCullough: Guidance was issued to all social services in 2009, which said that every child who has run away from home needs to have a Return Home Visit conducted by a third party upon their return home.
This allows an independent person to go into the family unit and help the young person and their family work through the reasons why the young person felt they wished to run away, and talk about the future together. Research proves that this significantly increases the chances of it not reoccurring.
The Return Home Interview is often carried out by the voluntary sector - several of our partners conduct these in the regions they work in. We are constantly developing guidance for all of our partners, and other agencies, to help ensure that this is carried out effectively throughout the UK.
Sadly, not all parts of the UK has a service like this - in some cases it is often up to the police to do what is called a 'Safe and Well' check with the young person and their family, to find out why they ran away. Railway Children are working with schools and other youth groups to enable other adults to spot the sighs that something might be wrong.
This is something that we are passionate about and believe it is something that needs to be urgently improved within our communities. It's wise for us to all be aware of the typical signs that might indicate that a young person may be thinking about running away from home - here's a list of things to watch out for if you're worried.
Q. worldgonecrazy: Is there extra support for LGBT runaways?
A. Andy McCullough: Services for young runaways vary from area to area, so it's hard to give an accurate answer. In an area where Return Home Interviews for runaways are being carried out to a high standard, a young people's sexuality and any extra support needs will be addressed as part of that process. Unfortunately, in many areas this will not be the case.
LGBT young people who are not getting support can contact the London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard for advice on 0300 330 0630 (which takes calls from all over the UK) or find their nearest switchboard by searching online. They can also talk to Childline on 0800 1111, or search for local groups at www.lgbtyouth.org.
Q. Maryz: What happens to children between the awkward ages of 16 and 18, when they are too old for child services but aren't actually adults?
A. Andy McCullough: At age 16, young people can be referred to supported accommodation projects if they cannot continue to live at home. While they do have more options than under-16s, there is a shortage of good quality supported accommodation and most 16 and 17 year olds find it difficult to live independently. Recent research we commissioned found a lack of appropriate services for 16 year olds to be referred on to.
Q. Hanahsaunt: Once children are back with their family, what ongoing support is available to both parties to work towards it not happening again? Do you have family mediators to work with? When is a runaway not a runaway (thinking of the recent case in Yorkshire where it was assumed the boy had run away)? How do the authorities decide?
A. Andy McCullough: Services for young runaways vary from area to area. We work with several partners to try to develop their work with the families of those who have had children run away from home. We see this as a critical part of our work. Often, families get into bad habits when communicating - or not communicating - with each other effectively, and having an independent person visit the family to help guide them through this is essential.
Social services should know of projects in your local area, or provide support themselves with families that are struggling.
When we talk about children who have run away from home, they are a subset of what the police might refer to as 'missing' children. Anyone who is not where they should be may be considered missing. Someone who has run away from home has made a conscious decision to do so - some may feel it was a choice, some may have felt that they had no other option.
Q. Punkatheart: What outside facilities (sleeping, feeding) are available for those children on the streets?
A. Andy McCullough: There are very few services for children to access when on the streets. They are not allowed to go to typical hostels or shelters because they are under age - most cater only for over-18s.
There are only two refuges for children in the UK where they can go to access what you describe as 'outside facilities'. We support both - and in order to access these refuges, a child needs to demonstrate they are in danger where they have run from and in danger where they have run to.
Social services have a duty to safeguard any child who is likely to be or is suffering harm. We hope through the projects we support on the ground that if a child cannot return home (which in the majority of cases, is the best possible outcome) that trained workers would advocate for a child to go to somewhere safe.
We also put a lot of resources into preventative and education work, as we believe that it is critical to provide help to those young people who may be thinking of running away from home, to provide support before they do so.
If you are worried about a teenager who could have run away, or could be thinking about it, take a look at our advice here.
Q. Whojamaflip: Is there any sort of organisation that a child could turn to before they run away? Or somewhere they could go to instead of landing on the streets? Along the lines of refuge for those in domestic violence situations.
A. Andy McCullough: Unfortunately, there is a very mixed picture across the country. A number of schools through their PSHE syllabus have lessons which explore running away, risk, relationships and so on. It's worth knowing what is taught in those lessons (and if your child's school doesn't include a session on running away from home, why not encourage them to do so?).
Schools will typically make children aware of phone numbers such as ChildLine and Missing People, both helplines that children can call anonymously to ask for help. (There's more info on those helplines here.)
We also have partners across England and Scotland that provide education, streetwork, Return Home Visits, and family and one-to-one work. We call them 'Reach' services - all of which are really important elements of helping to support vulnerable children.
With regards to refuge, sadly, there are very few services for children to access when on the streets. See the answer to Punkatheart for more information.
Q. Mograt: What work is being done to empower local communities to provide support services and groups to nurture their young people and identify problems that may lead to runaways?
A. Andy McCullough: Getting local people involved is essential. In 2013, we will launch a programme with the Girl Guides, and we already work closely with schools to whom we provide packs of information and lesson plans.
Our corporate partners Aviva work closely with us to support our educational outreach, Aviva volunteers are specially trained to go into schools to teach 'Runaway Prevention Awareness' lessons.
The volunteers and mentors who work with us and our partners are essential elements in the work that we do. Getting the right projects out there, getting communities to engage with children and then making sure government are doing their bit is the strategy behind all of Railway Children's work.
Safe@Last, a project based near Sheffield, is a great example of a community group who wanted to make sure children who run away in their area were kept safe. We have been partners with them for many years
Q. missymoomoomee: Do children have people they can talk to after they have returned home and would it be better to have some sort of confidential support in schools so the children can speak to them before they get as far as running away?
A. Andy McCullough: Many schools have sessions on growing up in PSHE lessons, and we know that pastoral services are great at engaging with children in schools. We would encourage children to get involved in youth clubs and other spaces for young people (like Girl Guides and Boy Scouts), as as well as interacting with other young people and learning new skills, they are places that have workers who are trained to speak to children about issues that may be worrying them.
I try to speak to my children about everything, including relationships, drugs, bullying etc. Equally, I am aware that they may not always want to speak to me about stuff. However, I hope that by making it clear that I am here and ready to talk about those things, they will feel that they can. I also make sure that I am aware that there are other people that they feel that they could talk to, if they ever felt they were not able to speak to me. It's important that everyone feels that they have someone to turn to. Good youth clubs are a great way for children to socialise and engage in informal education about growing up.
Q. flow4: What support is there for parents whose children have run away, and how do they find it?
A. Andy McCullough: The picture across the country is patchy. Once a young person is reported missing from home, the police - who will be looking for the child - should provide family liaison. The organisation Missing People also provide services for parents.
We have recently begun developing a project with one of our partners, Safe@Last, based near Sheffield in Yorkshire, in which we are exploring how the provision of a Parent Worker can support parents, and families, affected by this issue. We'd love to keep MNers informed of what we learn there and how similar programmes could be put in place elsewhere.
Your local authority might also know of parent support groups in your local area, who could be another resource to provide support to families.
Q. MaryBS: How can you best help someone whose child has run away and is still missing?
A. Andy McCullough: If you think that a child has run away, and you can't get in touch with them, the main thing is to try not to go into meltdown. Teenagers are prone to strops and storming out, so, difficult as it may sound, do your best not to jump to any worst-case conclusions, as the vast majority of child runaways return safely.
If you are worried about a child who could have run away, or could be thinking about it, take a look at our advice page here, for tips on what your first actions should be, including reporting the missing child to the police and getting in touch with Missing People.
If you're concerned that your teenager may be thinking of running away, make sure you check this advice, which lists some of the warning signs which could indicate that a child could be thinking about it.
You know your child better than anyone else, and none of the above signs in themselves mean your child is definitely thinking about running away. But if you notice obvious changes in your child's behaviour and these are worrying you, try to talk to them and find out what's going on. Help them see that running is not the only option.
And remember, you're not alone - you can get advice and support on the Mumsnet Talk boards.
Q. KTK9: As a parent, how much should we discuss with children about running away and the help that is out there for them? If it is discussed is there any research to say this helps them not to, or the opposite?
A. Andy McCullough: We believe that talking to your children about the topic of running away from home is a positive step to take - discussing it openly with them is the best way to bring tricky subjects like this to light, helping your child have a balanced viewpoint on both this, and other issues we may all face at some point in our lives.
This is much the same as discussing any tricky topic with your child - like sex, alcohol and drugs, etc. Interestingly, I've spoken at length with psychiatrist Dr Sandra Scott about this - her view is that being concerned that bringing up the topic with your child could put the idea into their child's mind is an understandable but largely unfounded concern.
If your child has no intention of running away, having a conversation about it with them is not likely to make it a plausible possibility. More importantly, if they are thinking of doing so, talking to them about it gives you the opportunity to stop it before it happens.
The fact is, that young people who run away often decide to do so on the spur of the moment, as a last resort. They probably haven't thought about where they'll go, where they'll sleep, how they'll get access to money or how their running away might affect their family. If a child planning to run away from home had thought these things through beforehand, the chances are that they may not have chosen to do so.
I am not aware of any research that suggests there could be any adverse effects to discussing tricky issues with your children, and giving them the information they, or their friends might need, to make choices and be safe in their lives.
I try to speak to my children about everything, including relationships, drugs, bullying etc. Equally, I am aware that they may not always want to speak to me about stuff. However, I hope that by making it clear that I am here and ready to talk about those things, they will feel that they can. I also make sure that I am aware that there are other people that they feel that they could talk to, if they ever felt they were not able to speak to me.
It's important that everyone feels that they have someone to turn to. Good youth clubs are a great way for children to socialise and engage in informal education about growing up.
Q. Iloveafullfridge: If a child I know - a friend's child, or a friend of my child - runs away and comes to me, and they refuse to let me call their parents, what should I do?
A. Andy McCullough: That's a tricky situation, as you could get in trouble if the parent has not given you permission for the child to stay. If you think you can convince the parent that they should let the dust settle and share with the child your dilemma, perhaps the child might approve. If you are in any doubt you must talk to the police or social services.
Q. Iloveafullfridge: Are my responsibilities towards that child different to what they would be if they had come to me with their parents' knowledge?
A. Andy McCullough: If a parent knows that they have come to you, then at least you can buy some time, however it is always worth a discussion for advice from social services as it may be perceived as private fostering. If the child does stay at yours it is important to keep the school involved so they can monitor any changes with the child.
Q. Noidles: Considering that there are a huge number of wide-ranging reasons that a child might run away, there can be no 'one size fits all' approach to dealing with the issue of child/teen runaways and you must feel as though there's a million and one things that the government could do to help.
What are the main solutions you're trying to lobby the government with at the moment? Does it focus more on prevention, or is it more about support and rehabilitation once a child has run away? If a child has a challenging background, in some ways it might be easier to anticipate that they might consider running away, but it must be hard to anticipate it if a child appears to be from a nice cosy middle class perfect world. But I could be completely wrong.
A. Andy McCullough: You are right, one size doesn't fit all. In our work with government, we spend time challenging them to make sure that every local authority has in place a named individual responsible for runaways, a plan and a way that the safeguarding boards can gather statistics and share what they know.
We are also looking to government to encourage initiatives such as application of the 'Reach Model', an innovative model of best practice based on recommendations from the people who best understand the issues and difficulties that face children running away from home, and worst case, living alone on the streets: the children themselves.
We have been rolling out this thinking to local authorities with support from our partner Aviva. This includes a suite of interlinked services which provide support before (an education programme), during (streetwork, outreach) and after (return home visit, family work) a young person runs away from home. You can see more detail on this here.
We also spend a lot of time encouraging government to see the bigger picture and see that more and more families we might not traditionally imagine children to run away from (cosy middle class, as you say) are facing real problems coping.
The current economic climate, for example, puts added pressure on families. The truth is that children run away from all types of backgrounds, and it's much more common than you might think, with almost as many children running away from affluent homes as from low-income households. Children run away from home for all sorts of reasons, usually to escape things they find stressful such as problems at school or home.
We must overcome the taboo that surrounds the issue of running away from home and get people talking openly about this issue, as we are doing here, to prevent this continuing to happen on our own doorsteps. So many parents don't even consider that this could happen to them, until it's too late.
Q. cm22v077Mon: Is there anything I can do to help reduce the amount of children who run away?
A. Andy McCullough: Thank you for asking - there are lots of things that you can do, and we'd love your support. Simply having a look at the information here on the Mumsnet site, and sharing it as widely as possible, with friends and family, will help us to raise awareness of this issue, which still remains incredibly hidden.
We have seen a wonderful response from Mumsnetters sharing their own stories, and this is something we'd encourage you to have a quick look at - these real-life stories really bring this hidden issue to life.
If you have a little more time and are able to, talk to your MP and ask what services there are in your area for children who run away from home - and if they aren't any, what are they planning to put in place? Together we can make a difference by lobbying government to take this issue seriously.
If you can spare time to volunteer, see if there's a project near you who might welcome some support - whether in person, in the office, or working with vulnerable children. We would also love to hear from you if you are able to help us make a difference via fundraising - we run several adventure fundraising programmes each year and would welcome any support anyone might be able to give, however small. Any donations will further the work within the UK.
Finally, please do talk to your children, make sure they know they can speak to you about anything.
We must overcome the taboo that surrounds the issue of running away from home and get people talking openly to prevent this continuing to happen on our own doorsteps. There's more good advice here too - it's always worth being aware of these things.
Q. Pukatheheart: What can be done to protect children against predators on the streets?
A. Charlie Hedges: Make your children aware of the dangers without frightening them and inform them about how to conduct themselves when out - for example, do not be tempted to speak with people they do not know.
If they are approached, they should go to a recognised and public place, such as a shop, and tell someone working there what is happening and use the safe place to contact a parent or other known adult. Tell them not to arrange to meet people they have met on the internet. Educate your children to understand that some adults do have inappropriate intentions and not all are honest.
Q. Aristocat: How long before a missing child is classed as a runaway? Can you clarify definitions of running away and missing. How do the police measure this?
A. Charlie Hedges: The police only use the definition of a missing person. The term 'run away' is used by Railway Children and other agencies/charities as a sub-set of this.
Essentially, if a child (or adult) is not where they should be, they may be considered as missing.
An assessment is then made of the circumstances to determine the appropriate action to be taken. There are no fixed times involved, as in some circumstances action must be taken immediately and in others background enquiries should be made to determine the circumstances of disappearance and potential risk to the child.
Q. Mograt: Are the statistics on runaways collated nationally and disseminated down to all the relevant groups and charities so that they can be put to best use for supporting runaways, potential runaways and their families?
A. Charlie Hedges: All police forces are required under a code of practice to report missing person data to the UK Missing Persons Bureau. Local authorities are required to report certain categories of missing children to the Department for Education and it is recognised that the data sets differ as the counting rules are not the same.
Work is currently underway to ensure greater similarity between the data collected to ensure that we have an accurate picture of missing persons and to fully understand the issues. These figures are made public and shared between agencies as necessary.
Q. Noidles: As your organisation deals with child protection and online protection, what connection is there to teenagers/children running away and their online activities? What can be done to help parents? It's hard to know what your teens are doing online when people are constantly connected to the internet now through their phones, tablet computers, laptops, etc. You want to balance protecting your teen with also giving them the freedom to feel as though you trust them.
A. Charlie Hedges: Online activity is so widespread now that there are crossovers between that and going missing. We know that some people use the internet and social media as a means of making inappropriate contact with children and will attempt to lure them away for their own purposes. It is important to be aware of such inappropriate contacts and to guard against it going any further.
We also know that children do not share everything with their parents and important information can be gleaned from their online activity should they go missing. Education of children is important in making them aware of the dangers, and more can be found on our website through the Think U Know programme.
Monitoring online activity is so much harder now and the pressures on young people to conform to what their peers are doing can be very strong. Talk to your children about the risks and make them aware of safety advice provided on the CEOP website. The NSPCC also offers online safety advice.
Q. Jiminycricket: What exactly do the police do when a child is reported missing? And what other agencies are involved?
A. Charlie Hedges: All missing person reports are subject to a risk assessment to help determine the scale and urgency of the investigation.
The investigation will entail detailed questioning and some searching of the missing person's room and possessions in an attempt to try to find out the circumstances of their disappearance. This may seem intrusive, but remember that going missing is a symptom of something else and it is very important to understand why someone has run away.
Without understanding what the full circumstances are, it is very difficult to search for missing persons effectively. It is almost always beneficial to work with other organisations and agencies. For example, schools or health authorities may have other useful information, and charities can offer services that are complementary to those offered by the police and sometimes more acceptable to the missing person. The basic part of all our work at CEOP is working in partnership with others.
Q. lisad123: Can more be done to found missing children eg faces on milk cartons, news etc? It seems the media is choosy about who they highlight
A. Charlie Hedges: Appeals for information can be of great assistance in locating missing persons, but it is important to recognise that in some circumstances it is not appropriate. Many of our appeals are managed by our partner organisation, the charity Missing People. It is able to access appeal methods that are not always directly available to law enforcement agencies and CEOP is able to access some that are not immediately available to charities.
Together, we are able to provide an effective method of reaching out to find those who have gone missing. CEOP is also responsible for Child Rescue Alert, which should only be used in the most extreme cases but can bring together a range of media appeals and link police forces to enable a better response to the volume of calls.
Q. notanotter: Whom should one turn to if one's child runs away? Should the police be a last resort? If the child has run away once, will the police be less likely to react second or subsequent times?
A. Charlie Hedges: The police are the agency to turn to in these instances. They are able to conduct enquiries and searches and coordinate the efforts of other agencies. While the police are the primary investigation agency, people sometimes need someone else to turn to and the charity Missing People operates the European standard 116 000 helpline 24 hours a day offering free and confidential support and advice.
It is important to recognise that running away is a symptom of some other issue in a child's life and multiple instances of running should be considered together in assessing what might be wrong. Each instance must also be assessed on its own merits to determine the level of risk and appropriate response.
It is not appropriate to dismiss or lower the value of multiple incidents. It has been said that children who run away regularly are 'streetwise'. I hate that term, as it so diminishes the risks these children are exposed to - they may think they know how to look after themselves but evidence tells us otherwise.
Q. Missymoomoomee: How many runaway children end up being groomed and used and abused in the sex industry?
A. Charlie Hedges: Not all children who run away are groomed or exploited, but running away has been shown to be an important indicator of such abuse. Absences must be considered in the context of other factors, such as, inappropriate relationships, acquisition of money or other possessions, use of alcohol, becoming distant etc.
The recently published report by the Children's Commissioner sets out the risk indicators in full and provides the latest information available in relation to this subject and can be found on their website.
Last updated: about 3 years ago