Each year, 100,000 young people aged 16 or under run away from home or care in the UK. There are just 11 emergency beds available to them: six in London, three in Glasgow and two in Sheffield.
The London Refuge, home of the six beds in the capital, accommodated 214 young runaways in 2008. The fate of the thousands of others is largely unknown; many never come to the attention of the authorities.
Remarkably, the London Refuge says that more than half of its residents last year were still attending school, so teachers may be the first to realise that something is awry. Problems at home often have a direct impact on schoolwork in terms of behaviour, attitude or general ability to concentrate. If teachers don't act, the situation can deteriorate fast - and pupils can stop turning up altogether.
Most will start off "sofa surfing" at various houses. When they run out of friends, one in six will choose to sleep rough rather than return home. They may end up in a brothel or dossing. Others will turn to alcohol, drugs or theft to keep afloat. Half of those who sleep on the streets will be hurt or harmed in some way, according to a Children's Society report.
Tracy, a 16-year-old from Birmingham, started running away from foster placements and children's homes two years ago, sleeping on friends' sofas for up to a fortnight at a time. She was removed from her mother's care when she was 11 years old following abuse and neglect, but she still craved her own freedom and space and wanted to live with family, rather than strangers.
When she started running away from a children's home with another resident, things went badly wrong. "At the time, anything seemed better than the children's home," she says. "Now I think differently."
They would head out at 3am and hook up with the other girl's friends, who plied them with drink and drugs. "I felt very threatened," says Tracy. "These so-called friends were taking advantage of us."
Tracy truanted from school, and then stopped going in altogether. "The teacher I spoke to made assumptions about me," she says. "She didn't want to listen and basically told me to go away. I stopped caring."
Jocelyn Pringle, an education and family support worker at the London Refuge, says most young runaways display problems with education. She liaises with teachers to ensure the young people complete as much school work as possible at the refuge, and accompanies those who need support to appeal panels or re-integration meetings.
"Many will already be on the brink of permanent exclusion," she says. "The school may punish them for not wearing the right uniform or for acting aggressively, without knowing the reasons why. If their parents don't notice or care, it's essential that their teachers do."
Recognising that there is a problem is one thing; knowing where to turn for help is another. One pupil made it clear to her teacher that she was too frightened to go home at the end of the school day. Social services did not believe her abuse claims and refused to accommodate her. The teacher eventually took the girl home with her for the night, before contacting the refuge the following day. Social service departments are usually the first port of call for worried teachers, but not every young person will meet the threshold that entitles them to a family support worker or social worker.
"Social services can be reluctant to get involved," says Andy Vincent, a head of year and child protection co-ordinator at Hainault Forest High School in Ilford, Essex. "They may see it as just a row that will blow over and persuade the pupil to go home. They'll often accompany them home and settle them in, or else the pupil just spends the night at a friend's house."
At Hainault School, which has high levels of pupil mobility and diversity, it is not uncommon for children as young as 11 to refuse to go home at the end of the day.
One boy, who was scared to return to his abusive father, eventually ran out of the school campus when social services did not step in. He was picked up by the police later that night and placed in care.
In each case, Hainault staff follow strict child protection protocol. Teachers try to discuss problems with pupils before approaching Mr Vincent, who then liaises between the pupil, social services and the parents or carers. If they run out of options, young people may refer themselves to the refuge.
There, they will get a bed, a hot meal, support and a listening ear. The youngest person to benefit was 11, but most are 15 to 16 years old. They can sleep at the refuge for up to 21 days within a three-month period, although most will stay just three to five days. During that time, their needs will be evaluated, their school kept in the loop and their parents contacted, although the refuge's address is never disclosed.
When the refuge is full, it can be a struggle to find young people a safe place to sleep. One 15-year-old was kept in a police cell for the night because there was nowhere else for him to go.
Children run away for any number of reasons: emotional, physical or sexual abuse; to escape alcoholic or drug-addicted parents; because they have been trafficked into the country and then abandoned, or simply as an act of rebellion.
Many of the young people who call ChildLine report a multiplicity of problems all feeding on each other, and their school experience is as likely a cause as any. "Mum hits me when I get in trouble at school, so I ran away," says an anonymous teenager. "I have been living with my gran for three days, but her flat is too small so she says I have to leave." His alcoholic father also refused to take him in. The boy felt he had no choice but to sleep on the streets.
It can also be a cry for help or attention. Each year ChildLine receives about 4,300 calls from young people about running away. Most just want a loved one to come after them.
The Government seems to have taken note. Its June 2008 Young Runaways Action Plan recognised that the runaways themselves are rarely the problem; the problem is what they are running from. It is producing a resource pack for schools to educate pupils about the dangers of running away, and is committed to reviewing emergency accommodation.
It stresses that running away should always be the last resort. Even in the face of neglect or regular conflict, home is often the best option, says Lorna Simpson, deputy manager of the London Refuge. "It may be imperfect, but if you get the right family support in place, home is usually good enough or safe enough," she says.
Once on the run, the young person becomes vulnerable to exploitation. Tracy can attest to that. Having battled with self-harm, drink and drugs, she is now in a children's home where she feels listened to and respected. And she is returning to education. With help from the Children's Society's Looked After Missing Persons project, she is applying to study childcare at college and hopes to move into her own training flat. "I'm getting praise for the first time in my life," she says. "I've been put down for as long as I can remember, but now people are empathising with me and trying to help."
Nowhere to run
- November 2002 The Young Runaways report, published by the Social Exclusion Unit, puts forward a detailed action plan.
- January 2008 The Children's Society publishes a report, "Stepping Up: the future for young runaways". It states that no significant progress has been made since 2002.
- June 2008 A cross-government working group launches the Young Runaways Action Plan. It states that local arrangements must be tightened. The Government vows to review the data quarterly throughout 2009-10.
- March 2009 Research about current emergency accommodation (commissioned by the Department for Children, Schools and Families) to be published.