This week, with the collapse of the 'Westminster paedophile ring' investigation, media outlets have devoted many column inches to discussing the rights and wrong of investigations into alleged historic abuses by high-profile figures. As always though, less attention was paid to reports out the same week focussing on the victims of such crimes: the hundreds of thousands of children every year experiencing abuse and violence, often in their home by someone in or close to the family.
The latest figures, out Thursday, show there are 193,000 children in need in England because of abuse or neglect. Also on Thursday we also learnt that Essex police are still failing vulnerable children who face abuse and exploitation. On Wednesday the police inspectorate, HMIC, reported that there are "unacceptable inconsistencies" in how forces respond to missing children, leaving many at risk. Shocking numbers, and shocking findings but ones which haven't sparked anything like the discussion we've had over Harvey Proctor.
Our obsession with scandal and high profile abusers obscures just how much of an epidemic child abuse is. Instead of only focussing on the latest juicy story we must pay more attention to the signs that could help us interrupt and prevent child abuse.
When children run away from home or care, they are often running from something. Theirs are childhoods blighted by abuse, violence, family instability, and parental drug or alcohol misuse. For girls particularly, running away can be an attempt to escape sexual violence and abuse.
Agenda research found that women who had experienced the most extensive abuse were 11 times more likely to have run away as a child than women who had little experience of abuse. Unfortunately, running away from problems at home can put girls at further risk. Perpetrators of abuse and exploitation target them because they are alone, vulnerable, and too often ignored.
Our first response to children who run away then must be to recognise that they aren't 'time-wasters', as they have been labelled by some forces, but vulnerable children many of whom have experienced trauma.
We know girls who run away are more at risk of becoming homeless, developing serious mental health, drug or alcohol problems, or having contact with the criminal justice system. As HMIC recognised, police responding to missing children need to recognise their vulnerabilities: to see them first and foremost as children who need help. Police are the first port of call but the implications are far wider. The response must closely involve other agencies and services, so that warning signs aren't missed and children fleeing abuse can get the proper protection and specialist help they need.
Running away can too often be seen as 'attention seeking' rather than the cry for help it often is. Until we stop seeing vulnerable children as 'time-wasters', the majority of abusers are going to be able to carry on offending, while their victims face incredibly difficult lives.
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