When family rifts or trouble at school lead children to the desperate measure of running away, what can be done? Raymond Ross reports on Scotland's first refuge for under-16s
Each year there are likely to be 11,000 to 12,000 incidents of children under 16 running away in Scotland. One in seven say they were forced to leave; one in six are sexually or physically assaulted while away from home; and 63 per cent of incidents are not reported.
In spite of these shocking statistics, Scotland has only one dedicated refuge for runaway children. The Aberlour Child Care Trust, one of Scotland's largest children's charities, opened the Running: Other Choices centre in Glasgow just over a year ago, since when it has supported some 80 children, providing about 500 days of refuge.
"The majority make contact by telephone, though some are referred by the police, social workers or Childline," says Laura Irvine, manager of the refuge.
"Being under 16, they cannot legally access any other form of accommodation. The majority wouldn't meet local authority criteria for admission to care. They have run away, don't want to return home and have no other safe accommodation."
The refuge has two full-time carers and takes up to three children at a time.
"We meet them and check them out with social services to see if anything is known about them," says Ms Irvine. "We ask why they've run, where they stayed last night and how safe they feel there."
The refuge is a last resort to keep runaways from sleeping rough or from staying in an unsafe house. They come not only from central and west Scotland but as far as England, including an Asian girl running from an arranged marriage. The average stay is six days but can be up to 14 days.
More than 50 per cent return to their family, usually more content because issues have been discussed.
"The majority have family-based problems but school is also an area which can be problematic. A lot can't cope with school because of a chaotic family or personal life," says Ms Irvine.
"We draw up contracts between parents and young people. Parents are keen this works and usually want the young person back safely. It's about beginning the process to heal rifts," says Ms Irvine.
When and where the children move on to is planned in consultation with them (and their families). The Aberlour ROC Project (of which the refuge is part) provides up to 12 weeks of outreach contact to help the children manage their new situation. The charity also provides advice and support on health matters, ranging from sexual and mental health to nourishment and issues such as self-harming.
Most children do not run away to London or other cities but keep to areas familiar to them, often going to other family members or friends before sleeping rough.
"Why are 63 per cent of runaways not reported? Is it because the families know roughly where they are? Is it because they don't care? Or don't want the hassle with the authorities? I don't know, but the statistic is shocking," says Ms Irvine.
The Children's Society in England last month called for a national network of refuges for young runaways, a proposal supported by the Aberlour Child Care Trust. Its Glasgow refuge is a national demonstration project set up with pound;600,000 from the Scottish Executive (including start-up capital). It costs over pound;300,000 a year to run. With government funding of Pounds 113,000 a year guaranteed until 2008 and pound;40,000 from the Railway Children Trust, this leaves an annual shortfall of around pound;150,000.
"This is the only dedicated refuge of its kind in Scotland and we should be looking to extend it," says Aberlour's service manager, Bryan Evans. "But how can we, when we can't even keep this one going properly?" There are no plans to close the refuge but the trust says it cannot keep the deficit running indefinitely. "If it's not sorted by March, the end of the financial year, we will have to decrease the level of service," says Mr Evans.
"This would be like an A E department in a hospital treating only one in every three patients. This is a crisis service, not a luxury."
He is anxious that the Executive, with its emphasis on child protection, should provide further funding and that local authorities should help.
Mr Evans believes there should be somewhere safe for young people to stay in every area of Scotland. "This would not necessarily mean a refuge like the Glasgow one. It might be refuge foster carers dotted around a rural area or a local authority run refuge. We need to develop more models," he says.
The Aberlour ROC Project includes prevention work to head off crisis situations which force children to run. Workers undertake personal and social education in schools to raise awareness and show how help can be sought at an early stage.
Missing Out, the 2002 University of York report undertaken for the Aberlour trust, draws prevention and early intervention lessons for schools.
Interviews with 37 young people who had run away highlighted the lack of information about local services which might have helped them, suggesting there should be more publicity in schools and youth centres.
The sort of help they would have appreciated reflects the issues that underpin many runaway incidents, such as parental separation, divorce and family reconstitution, parents with drug and alcohol problems, mistreatment by parents and persistent family conflicts. One in four also said that problems at school had been an ingredient in their decision to run away but it was rarely the deciding factor.
School-based preventative services suggested by the young people included discussions about problems in family life and peer and professional counselling.
ROC refuge helpline, 0800 783 6686 (diverted to Childline if Aberlour is unable to answer)