THE AUTHORITIES in Edinburgh have become so alarmed at the scale of absconding from residential centres for school-age children that police and social work officials have joined forces to fight the problem.
Police figures reveal that each absconder was responsible for an average of 30 crimes committed in the past year. Now Lothian and Borders Police have taken the unusual step of convening a joint meeting with social work directors from within the force's area to discuss the use of joint initiatives
The social work department, meanwhile, has been asked to draw up a report by September.
Police figures for a 15-week period to mid-June show there have been as many as 252 incidents of absconding from five residential units in the south and east of Edinburgh. In Lothian and Borders as a whole, the year to June saw at least 519 crimes committed by a hard core of 19 school-age children who had absconded on 152 occasions.
Marilyne MacLaren, an Edinburgh Liberal Democrat councillor, says there are also child safety issues. "There is a lot of concern about what is happening to these youngsters. They are being put in these units for their safety and well being. But by absconding they end up being put in danger."
Katy Lessells, who chairs Edinburgh's Children Panel, comments: "The panel says supervision is required within residential care. If the young people are then absconding we want to know why."
Alan Miller, principal reporter of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration, believes the issue raises "serious concerns".
Tom Wood, Deputy Chief Constable in Lothian and Borders, points out that staff caring for young people "have a duty of care not only to the individual but to the general population as well".
Mr Wood suggests that, although absconding is widespread, local police believe some staff have more problems handling youngsters in care than others. He has prepared a report on the subject for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland, proposing that more information on best practice across the country is required
Police say St Katharine's and Howdenhall centres in Edinburgh, which accounted for 159 out of the 252 absconding incidents, are regarded as housing some of the most difficult young offenders for whom they provide both secure and open residential care and education.
Ms MacLaren, a member of the crime prevention panel for south Edinburgh, wants social work officials to consider the particular problem of under-16 repeat offenders. She points to the success of Freagarrach, the unit set up by Barnardo's in 1994 and run from bases in Polmont and Alloa.
In Edinburgh, National Children's Homes Action runs the "court hearing interface project". Both it and the Barnardo's initiative operate day units only, but they have in common the use of intensive work with individuals aimed at encouraging them to examine their own behaviour and to think about its consequences.
Although more cash and better staff training are seen as part of the solution to divert young people from offending behaviour, an HMI report on St Katherine's in January also pointed to the importance of a good standard of accommodation as a factor.
The Guthrie unit, opened in 1994, was commended by the chief inspector of social work in 1996 as a model because of its small size, having just seven places.
HMI also pointed to other significant factors. Teaching arrangements at St Katherine's resulted in children not on secure orders being taught alongside those that were. The quality of lessons was "variable". The inspectors also criticised the lack of "effective joint working" between education and care workers and between staff and psychologists.
* Running away is one of the reasons troubled young people are placed in secure units in the first place. Angus Skinner, Scotland's chief social work inspector, stated in his 1996 report, A Secure Remedy, that of 74 young people in such units in Scotland three-quarters had a history of running away. Boys in particular had a history of offending. * Running away is one of the reasons troubled young people are placed in secure units in the first place. Angus Skinner, Scotland's chief social work inspector, stated in his 1996 report, A Secure Remedy, that of 74 young people in such units in Scotland three-quarters had a history of running away. Boys in particular had a history of offending.