This research on young runaways and their lives on the street makes depressing reading. It shows that more than 10,000 young people run away 10 or more times before their 16th birthday and that 70 per cent of these had been in local authority residential care.
The research reveals that the younger the children when they first ran away the more likely they were to become "detached". These "detached" young people have little contact with the adult caring world. One 14-year-old girl had lived on the street for three years with minimal adult contact. Children living on the streets turned to crime and prostitution to survive. Half of the young people had stolen and one in seven had had sex for money while others had resorted to begging.
All young people living on the streets are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse and health problems; of the young people questioned more than a quarter had been physically or sexually assaulted on the streets, and many said they were also frightened, lonely, hungry and ill. Many of the runaways had attempted to harm themselves by taking overdoses, cutting their wrists or trying to hang themselves.
Some runaways reported positive experiences of living on the street such as freedom, having the time and space to think and the friendship of street people. Amanda is quoted as saying that though she never wishes to return to street life, you have a loyalty to the street and "you have to fight yourself to get off the street".
The report presents a stark picture of young runaways and their street lives. For many young people life on the street offered a better alternative than family life, life in care or with a substitute family. Most of the young people had disrupted family lives, 60 per cent had lived in a split family, 25 per cent in a reconstituted family and 50 per cent suffered physical violence at the hands of their parents or step-parents. This violence was often extreme and routine.
As usual with research of this kind it is reactive, although the report makes recommendations and suggests a three-stage system of intervention: primary intervention focusing on preventative work with young people and their families before the running away occurs: secondary intervention working with young people in the early stages of running away, focusing on mediation work with families and residential children's homes to resolve the situations which make young people run away: tertiary intervention that is sensitive to real needs by working with young people who have made a career of living on the streets and engaging them practically.
The report presents powerful messages that deserve to be heard and acted upon by parents, local authority, social service departments and central Government.
Francis Charlton is a criminologist specialising in working with young people.