The charity Railway Children, which works with children who run away and end up on the streets, this week launches the report Reaching Safe Places. Funded by the charity's corporate partner Aviva, the report also involved a group of young researchers with personal experience of running away and homelessness.
Of the 100,000 children under 16 who run every year, an estimated 18,000 children will sleep rough or with someone they've just met. For many, this is because they do not have somewhere safe to go when they need it most. Along with the closure of all but one refuge for young runaways in the UK and evidence of patchy use of local authority emergency accommodation, this provides the back drop and context for this latest report.
The report's findings are based on interviews with children and young people who have run away, a consultation with sector workers, and a Freedom of Information request to local authorities on emergency accommodation use.
The report highlights how practitioners are really struggling to find safe places for vulnerable children due to fewer services, funding cuts and higher thresholds for intervention. In a survey of practitioners, a third said they were struggling to get social care assessments for 16-17-year olds, leaving them stuck in limbo between social care and housing services. In the same survey, four of the top five places children and young people run to are behind closed doors (houses of friends and family, acquaintances, strangers' houses and parties).
The problem is that in Railway Children's experience risky situations can happen almost immediately. Who you are with is far more critical than how long you've been away. When a teenager has 'run out of favours' and sleeping on a friend's sofa is no longer possible, ending up at the home of someone they barely know can happen very quickly. Behind closed doors, invisible to police and social workers, they often don't realise the risks until it's too late. And in my own experience of working with children at risk for over 25 years, the well-being of these children depends on them having support from adults they can trust. But young people are struggling to find a safe place when they most need one.
In response to a Freedom of Information request sent by Railway Children, 71 out of 110 local authorities that responded did not provide emergency accommodation for any children under 16 who ran away in 2013/14. As few as 157 children were given this support by the remaining 39 authorities.
Legislation provides a safety net for those young people who have run away and have nowhere safe to stay, but only half of local authorities were able to report how often they had used emergency accommodation to safeguard a young person who had run away.
A young person who runs away from home or care and has no safe place to go is at risk of ending up on the streets or in other equally unsafe places where they are vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, or involvement in crime.
In the report, many teenagers described the need for 'breathing space' and many professionals in the consultation highlighted the importance of having somewhere safe to go during the day for a few hours, where they can speak to someone they trust. Some form of overnight accommodation is essential, but the provision of safe places during the day may reduce demand for such provision.
Dionne, one of the report's peer researchers, said that '...having positive people around you when you're homeless and trying to find somewhere safe is essential. Some people might not have got into that situation if they had got help earlier. A lot didn't know where to get help. It was often later on, further down the line that they finally got help.'
A number of recommendations have come out of the report. High up on the list is the need for this government to do more to protect youth services that offer young people not in school a safe place to go and much-needed positive relationships with youth workers. Schools, generally, also need to play a bigger role as safe places and provide PSHE lessons to develop life skills and help young people stay safe.
Equally, every local authority must fulfill their legal duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in their area who are in need. In spite of statutory guidance stating that every child that runs away from home or care should be offered a return interview with someone independent who they trust, provision remains inconsistent and patchy. Doing this as early as possible is key to protecting these children from harm and preventing risks from escalating further. But there is clearly some way to go before we can say with confidence that there is a safety net in place for these children when they need it most.
For more information about the report go to http://www.railwaychildren.org.uk