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A Crucial Step Forward for Runaway Children

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After years of relentless campaigning by charities like ours, the government last week finally announced changes that will help keep the estimated 100,000 children that run away every year safe from harm and abuse.

The government has published new guidance for local councils, which sets out how they should help children that go missing from home or care.

Our own research highlights a complexity of reasons that force or cause children to run away from their parents or carers. These can include conflict, abuse, substance misuse or even being lured away for a period of time by predatory individuals.

And while they are missing, we know that young runaways are extremely vulnerable to being harmed, becoming involved in criminal activity or being preyed upon by individuals or groups.

The guidance backs one of our key demands for young runaways: that that every young person who runs away is given the opportunity to talk to an independent, trained and trusted adult once they have been found.

A 'return interview' can prevent a young person from running away again and being at risk of serious harm, as well identify vital support to address the reasons why they have run away. In the most serious cases, they can also help disrupt on-going exploitation of children and help bring perpetrators to justice.

A return interview should be a friendly offer of help, an opportunity to be listened to. For many children who run away - often from troubled backgrounds - it may be the first time they feel that there are people who care about them and are prepared to offer help.

And the guidance makes it absolutely clear that local agencies - like the police, social services, care homes and health providers - are responsible for children in care as well as for those who run away from their family homes. All children who run away need protection. They should not be allowed to slip through the net of services unable to decide whose responsibility they are.

Running away cannot be seen solely as a policing issue, a parenting issue, an educational disruption, or as a child protection concern. It is a complex issue that requires a joined- up approach from a range of different local services to ensure that the needs of the child are understood and responded to in full.

Although our understanding has improved over the past decade - of who young runaways are, why they choose to leave their home or care and what experiences they have while away has evolved - we still don't have anything like a consistent or supportive response from the variety of services that are supposed to look after the safety of young people. The long awaited guidance offers an opportunity to all local safeguarding agencies to have a fresh look at whether they are doing enough to keep young runaways safe from harm.

We have been working closely with the government to produce this guidance and welcome the clear leadership they have shown on this issue. But the spotlight is now on local councils to follow this guidance and make sure these changes happen. It is crucial that they rise to this challenge so that every child who runs from home or care is kept safe.

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