It is desperately worrying when a child runs away from home or from care. Even if they are only gone for a few panic-ridden hours, and even if their whereabouts are known or suspected, their well-being is seriously at risk.
Children run away for a variety of reasons and they may be perfectly safe. However we also know that things can very quickly spiral out of control and leave children at the mercy of people who want to exploit them.
I sometimes wonder whether we listen to children enough. Their world may seem like a mystery to us but young people today face pressures and dangers that we can't begin to comprehend.
Through its specialist services Barnardo's works with more than a thousand sexually exploited children first hand. Many of these children have run away and are often incredibly vulnerable.
Because of the nature of this kind of abuse young people often don't realise the danger they are in. It is common for sexually exploited young people to think they are in a loving reciprocal relationship.
Their experiences can warp their views of sex and relationships and as result they might not seek the support they need. However if a child has a pattern of unexplained absences it is very likely that something else is going on under the surface and it is essential that action is taken.
A report published by Barnardo's brings together the experiences of young people who have both run away and been sexual exploited. The testimonies of these young people are heartbreaking. They show the desperate situation that runaway children can often find themselves in.
One boy, Ben, told of how he had run away from home to go to parties with older men. At first Ben enjoyed the life he was leading but very quickly things got out of hand and he was being sexually exploited. Often men would pick Ben up and ply him with drinks and drugs so that they could abuse him. Ben found himself living on the streets at the age of 15 and having to sell sex just to survive.
Nineteen of the children who took part in the research were found on the streets. It begs the question whether enough is being done by the authorities to find and help them. The ease with which the author of the report was able to find young people is a sobering reminder to us all. It is essential we get to these children first, because if we don't then those who want to abuse them will.
Taking the time to speak to a child who has run away is central to dealing with this problem. We must take the time to find out why they did it and how we can help them so that we can ensure they are better protected.
If we are to truly fight the terrible crime of child sexual exploitation it is absolutely crucial that children are listened to. It is incumbent on us all to ensure their safety. We cannot stand idly by and leave vulnerable young people homeless, alone and at the mercy of manipulative sexual predators. It is shameful to say but currently we are failing these children. This cannot continue.