Over time the close links between running away and sexual exploitation have been established. Workers at our projects that support young runaways are finding that for most children they support there is a serious risk of, or involvement in, exploitation.
Amy, a project worker in the Midlands, said: ‘It’s important to say that for child sexual exploitation work, virtually all those at risk are runaways. Almost by definition, if there is exploitation going on, there are more frequent missing episodes . . . and they’ve got somewhere to go, to a flat or a property’.
In many cases children who run away are being actively targeted in public places such as parks, bus stations or city centres, not just by adults but increasingly by their peers. Project workers say they are seeing children making connections with their peers from the other side of cities or in different areas altogether, either through spending time on the streets, or because looked after children know each other from various placements.
When children run away from home or care they will be in great danger of being physically or sexually abused or exploited. This is a common finding from all voluntary sector organisations. For example, Barnardo’s services which work with children at risk of, or involved in, sexual exploitation say that more than half the children they support run away on a regular basis.
The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre’s recently published thematic assessment emphasised the clear links between children who run away from home and child sexual exploitation. The involvement of children in exploitation takes place over weeks and months and if a child is often running away, potential abusers can easily target them.
Our research shows that a quarter of the 100,000 children who run away each year will be at serious risk of harm while away from home. We found that one in six said they slept rough, one in eight said they resorted to begging or stealing to survive and one in 12 said they were actually hurt or harmed. It is not unusual for children to also become involved in substance misuse.
Our practitioners find that mainstream services like schools and the police are not sufficiently aware of all of the risks facing children who run away. Instead, if a child runs away regularly there is a tendency for agencies to become complacent about the child’s ability to take care of themselves.
Join our campaign today to build a safety net to see that when a young person runs away from home or care a safety net is in place to support them.
Learn more about why we’re working to make runaways safe.