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Children Running Away From Home - A Secret Epidemic in the UK?

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Children running away from home - a secret epidemic in the UK? New research finds one in ten women in England report running away before aged 16.

Megan Stammers, the school girl who ran away with her married maths teacher, appears unusual, hence all the headlines, but in fact running away from home could be a lot more common than realised.

Most of the time it's obviously not as high profile, but are child runaways a hidden epidemic in modern Britain?

Just about to be published is one of the largest surveys of its kind ever conducted - a team of researchers led by Dr Howard Meltzer from the University of Leicester, has uncovered that 7% of adults in England aged 16 -34 years report at least one episode of running away from home before the age of 16.

Even more worrying was the finding that women, who might be more vulnerable to sexual and other exploitation as children, were nearly twice as likely to have run away before aged 16 as men: 9.8% of women compared with 5.3% of men.

The study, entitled 'Children Who Run Away From Home: Risks for Suicidal Behavior and Substance Misuse', reports that comparable surveys from the United States show 6%-7% of adolescents flee from home in any one year.

In reviewing other studies of runaways, Meltzer and colleagues conclude that they rarely remain away for extended periods, and do not usually stray far. They often return home spontaneously, so the underlying motivation for running may have been the hope of engineering a change in some predicament at home.

Howard Meltzer, Tamsin Ford, Paul Bebbington and Panos Vostanis from the University of Leicester, Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry, Exeter, and University College London, studied a sample of 2,247 adults living in England, investigating whether they had run away from home before 16 years old.

The study found that the children who flee were more likely to have had parents divorced or separated, or to have lost a close family member before the age of 16. They were also seven times more likely to have experienced violence at home, five times more likely to have been raped, and twice as likely to have been bullied themselves.

The study also found much early anti-social behaviour; 40% admitted stealing or shoplifting, 20% of runaways had bullied other children, started fights, or lied to obtain goods. Approximately 8% of past runaways confessed to threatening with a weapon, deliberately torturing, or breaking into houses or cars. For nearly all of these anti-social activities the rate among runaways was around three to four times greater than the general population.

Meltzer and colleagues report previous research which finds that youngsters living on the streets in the United States are found to suffer disproportionately; 70% of young female street children report sexual and 35% report physical abuse, while 24% of young males report sexual and 35% report physical abuse.

And, of course, just because a child returns home doesn't mean that the crisis is over. Meltzer and colleagues report that adults who had run away from home as children were more likely to develop suicidal thoughts or make suicide attempts, had twice the chance of becoming alcoholics, plus were three times more likely to become drug dependent.

Just as running away from home can continue to have repercussions long into the future, it appears its causes may have roots in the distant past - in the families of runaways going right back to the childhoods of the parents.

In a study entitled 'The Intergenerational Transmission of Running Away: Childhood Experiences of the Parents of Runaways', Peggy Plass and Gerald Hotaling found children with parents who themselves had run from home when younger, are at higher risk for running away themselves. Plass and Hotaling explore some intriguing psychoanalytic theories in their study, published in the 'Journal of Youth and Adolescence', for example, the child might be running away because of 'unconscious dynamics' in a family.

Marital discord could produce an 'unconscious wish' harboured by parents to themselves 'run away' through divorce or separation. An adolescent, consciously or unconsciously aware of a parental desire to bail out, runs away because of something unsaid within the family.

There is no hint from the faultless way parents in the Megan Stammers case have handled their very upsetting predicament, that the cause of this incident is due to a family problem.

However, 'forbidden love' appears a prominent theme in children who run away from home given a recent study by Martha Waller and Rebecca Sanchez in the USA, who found a significant positive association between same-sex romantic attractions and running away. Over a two year period, 11% of all youth reported running away at least once. Among those with same-sex attractions, almost 20% reported running away.

Their study entitled 'The Association Between Same-Sex Romantic Attractions and Relationships and Running Away Among a Nationally Representative Sample of Adolescents' reports previous research has found that amongst self-identified bisexual and gay adolescent males, 40% reported running away at least once.

Waller and Sanchez's study is recently published in the academic journal 'Child and Adolescent Social work' and reports another previous investigation found only 55% of homeless adolescents identified themselves as completely heterosexual. Another prior study of homeless adolescents found that 48% of females self-identified as lesbian or bisexual, and 28% of males self-identified as gay or bisexual.

Frustration and upset means probably everyone gets tempted to bail out of their family from time to time, and perhaps being a bit different within a family, represents one of the strongest challenges.

The dramatic extent of the modern child runaway problem indicates that more than ever before, families are under strain and need support, but because this occurs largely behind closed doors, it remains one of Britain's best kept secrets.