The risks of running away from home

"My daughter, aged eight, announced I was a horrible mother and she was leaving home. She packed a carrier bag and off she flounced, banging the front door behind her. I watched her from the window as she walked down the path, and settled into a hole in the hedge at the end of the garden, and sat looking very sorry for herself. I didn't dare take my eyes off her for one second, in case she really walked off. I can remember how scary that felt, just for an hour, and I actually knew where she was and what she was doing. I can't imagine how it must feel if you don't know why your child has run away, where they are, or if they are safe." DorothyGherkins 

Running awayMany of us have similar stories to tell about the time we packed a carrier bag with a jam sandwich and a spare pair of underpants, and 'ran away' to the shed at the bottom of the garden before we returned sheepishly to our parents a short while later.

Sadly, many children and young people run away for real. And those who do often find themselves in extremely risky situations they are completely unprepared for.


Sexual abuse and exploitation

With no money and nobody to turn to, young runaways are extremely vulnerable to adults who might try to exploit them.

Imagine being scared and alone, and someone offers you a place to stay and something to eat. You'd be so relieved and grateful, you might not realise that sooner or later there'll be a price to pay – especially if you're young and naive. This is what happens to some children who end up on the streets.

Off the Radar, Railway Children's study of 103 children who had run away from home, found that just under a fifth had experienced sexual exploitation. That included having sex with older men (and in one case a woman), being forced to have sex for money by a boyfriend, being shared for sex by groups of men and selling sex on the streets.

"My cousin ran away at 14 and came back pregnant. It has blighted her life. Another cousin ran away and became a prostitute. A terrible waste of two lives." TheProvincialLady

Drugs and alcohol

Drugs and alcohol play all too big a role in the lives of young people on the streets.

"I was sleeping rough and sofa surfing... I was offered and had access to every kind of drug you can imagine and then some." JacquelineHyde

Often, runaways use alcohol or drugs to mask their pain, get through the long days and nights or tolerate the things they have to do to survive.

It's not just drugs like heroin, either; some young people turn to inhaling butane gas or glue.

Every single one of the young people who were interviewed for the Off the Radar study had used drugs and alcohol to some degree, with some as young as nine-years-old using ecstasy, cannabis and cocaine.



"When I ran away, I slept in some places you wouldn't believe, in temperatures I was lucky to survive through. And I wasn't even from one of the worst homes out there." WorldOfMeh

And the longer young people stay on or around the streets, the more they become detached from society. Many have a severe mistrust of adults and often go on to become homeless as they get older. They can end up on a slippery slope of emergency accommodation, moving around and, finally, living on the streets.

"The difficulty with kids who run away from home for no obvious reason is that they are likely to run away from wherever they are housed as they won't obey the rules of foster parents or care homes any more than they will their own parents. So they tend to get put in more adult places. The only space my son was offered was a bed in an adult homeless hostel (at the age of 14)." MaryZed



Some young people turn to crime to survive. They're often used to run drugs across cities or forced to shoplift. One study found that one in eight had stolen, one in eleven had begged, and one in nine had done 'other things' to survive after running away.

However, it's more common for runaways to become victims of crime. More than two out of three children in Off the Radar had fallen victim to violence on the streets.


Mental health problems

Many young people who run away say they weren't being heard, or that they suffer from low self-esteem. Once they're on the streets, they're often ignored or moved on – a daily reminder that they're worthless. And dealing with the stress of living rough and trying to survive soon takes its toll.

So it's not surprising that over two thirds of children and young people interviewed for Off the Radar said they'd had mental health problems.

Breakdowns in young people's relationships with their parents are often a factor in running away and can lead to problems like depression.

"I ran away a lot as teen. I was very unhappy and there were a lot of long-standing issues coming to a head with my parents. I worry about my seven-year-old who is having some difficult emotional issues at the moment and often says he will leave but when I have spoken to him he says he doesn't mean it, he is just trying to tell me how bad he feels. I hope he won't be a teen runaway. I've tried hard to avoid the mistakes my parents made." Offred



Last updated: about 3 years ago