A number of organisations focused on helping children and young people have been voicing their fears that government cuts are seriously affecting local services for runaways, following a marked decline in the number of dedicated projects in this sector since the spring.
Statistics show that an estimated 100,000 children and young people run away from home or care every year in the UK. While some people searchunstintingly for their missing child, the sad fact is that some families do not care or are under too much strain from other factors to find a missing person. As missing persons usually do not want to be found, it can take significant effort and often considerable sums of money to trace people.
One in six young runaways ends up on the streets. The peak ages for runaways are between 13 and 15 years, although just under than a third of young people running away have first done so before they reached 13. The average cost of providing support to a young person when they have run away for the first time is £800. With around one in eight young people being physically hurt and around one in nine being sexually assaulted while they are away from home, the children’s charities have good reason to be concerned about the funding cuts.
Susie Ramsay, Chair of the English Coalition for Runaway Children and Policy Adviser at The Children’s Society, has said that services for young runaways have dropped to “the bottom of the list for local authorities“. After conducting a survey of services that provide help to runaways earlier this year, she commented, “We identified around 50 services, from dedicated young runaways services to local youth provision offering specialist support. Most of them said they had their budgets reduced by about 20 per cent this year and the majority were concerned about their future.”
Missing People, a charity that provides a national helpline for children who run away, is another organisation that has flagged up the drop in funding. The charity offers an out-of-hours service to local projects, allowing them to divert their own ‘phone lines to the Missing People helpline outside of office hours. Said Martin Houghton-Brown, the charity’s Chief Executive, “We’re hearing from local projects that they’ve lost funding, they are closing, or they are scaling back their resources to such an extent that they are closing their helpline.” As a result, Missing People’s out-of-hours service has witnessed a 60 per cent drop in the number of projects diverting to it.
Andy McCullough, National Policy and Strategy Adviser at the charity Railway Children, has been working with young runaways for more than 15 years and is more worried than ever before about the lack of services. “Local projects have been disproportionately hit,” he said. “Local authorities are looking for places to save and tending to focus more money on looked-after children and the child protection system. I know of four projects that have closed since April this year. There are so few projects anyway that this is really worrying.”
Another charity to raise its concerns has been St Christopher’s Fellowship, which previously ran the London Refuge service for young runaways. The London Refuge used to work with around 285 young people every year but was forced to close two years ago. Explained Brian Smith, Assistant Director of Children’s Services at St Christopher’s, “Local authorities say that they have adequate provision themselves, but we argue that they don’t and in fact a lot of young people who run away have nowhere to go to. Just because there is no funding for services doesn’t mean that the need isn’t there,” continued Mr Smith. “The more we erode those services, the more young people will be involved in sexual exploitation or in trouble with gangs.”
Brian Smith went on to say that the project that St Christopher’s is now running with Enfield Council to support young runaways and their families supports this view. “Our work in Enfield is raising very serious issues about young people running to gangs, not running from them, because it’s a way of being secure,” he explained. “There’s a lot of sexual exploitation and drug and alcohol abuse in these gangs but girls of 13 or 14 are being drawn to them. Without the alternatives we can’t offer them something else.”
Tim Loughton, Children’s Minister, is working to produce a national action plan on sexual exploitation and the Home Office is forming a national strategy for missing persons. Both reports are being published this autumn. In the meantime, families and local authorities who want to search for people will increasingly rely on private investigators to conduct people searches and undertake the legwork required to find missing persons. The first ports of call for such private investigators would naturally be missing persons UK organisations, so the fewer of these that there are in existence, the harder the job facing these ‘people finders’. However, if they are serious about their search, people are advised to seek professional help from a reputable firm of private investigators.