10,000 children run away from care each year – what are we going to do about it?

There are just over 65,000 children in care in England. Most of these children live in foster care but around 7% of them live in one of England’s 1,810 children’s homes.  These children are three times more likely to run away from home than other children and an estimated 10,000 a year do just that.

Children in care are amongst the most vulnerable in our society.  They have often experienced abuse, neglect or trauma.  As a consequence, when they go missing, they are likely to be in great danger of being physically or sexually abused or exploited.

This makes for pretty grim reading, but as you may have seen on Tuesday, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and the APPG for Looked After Children and Care Leavers produced a joint report following an inquiry to examine the concerns that have been raised regarding the care and support received by children who go missing from care.

The report is rather hefty as they tend to be but these paragraphs from the introduction and executive summary bring the findings together in a manageable chunk:

‘What has come through loud and clear to the Inquiry is that far too many of the vulnerable children who go missing from care are being failed by the very people and systems that are supposed to protect them. Trafficked children from abroad are particularly being let down and their needs ignored because the authorities view child trafficking as an immigration control issue. Hundreds of them disappear from care every year and the majority are never found again.

‘The Inquiry has shown how the system is far from fit for purpose for the thousands of children who go missing from care every year. It needs an urgent rethink. Going missing is a key indicator that something is not right in a child’s life. It must be seen as a cry for help and always trigger early help. Many of our society’s most vulnerable children are given care and support that falls dramatically short of what we would expect for our own children and what is needed to keep them safe.

‘We urge the government to consider these as a priority. We urge professionals charged with the care of these very vulnerable children to do everything they can to provide them with appropriate care and support to keep them safe from harm – and help pave the way to a happy adulthood.’

Fortunately the government has announced urgent action in response to the report’s recommendations, which will include an independent investigation into children’s homes in England which, as the report puts it, ‘are failing to manage and protect children who run away or go missing. This is despite spending £1billion a year on just under 5,000 children cared for in children’s homes averaging £200,000 per child.’

The Children’s Society who tirelessly work to support vulnerable children have been heavily involved with the report have approved of the Government’s quick and full response.  This is part of what their press release:

Over the last few months we have supported a joint parliamentary inquiry into children going missing from care. The report of its findings revealed a shocking picture of children who go missing from care being failed by the very professionals and systems that are meant to protect them.

The children’s minister, Tim Loughton, acknowledged that the inquiry ‘goes right to the heart of some of the serious weaknesses in the system‘ and stated that these ‘must be addressed as a matter of urgency, if we are to be able to meet our responsibilities to safeguard and protect all looked after children from abuse and exploitation’.

So it looks like things at last are moving in the right direction on this issue.  How we treat and protect children in care says an awful lot about us as a society.  For some people requiring substantial state support to get by it possible to say that it is a result of poor choices and lifestyles, but for these children the blame cannot be put on them.  They are in care because of the actions of parents and adults or through difficult and traumatic experiences in their lives.  They need all the help and love we can give them.  The Government, local authorities, homes and carers on behalf of our society should be seeking to give them the best upbringing possible, even if there is a cost involved.  You would have thought at £200,000 per child in a care home they would be getting a better quality of life than many apparently are.  If there are failings in the system, then no matter how big or small they are, there is no excuse for not trying to correct them.

Having worked with some of these children, it’s clear how difficult and unstable life often is for them being moved around and having parents with serious problems and addictions whom they still have contact with.  For many what they need most of all is stability and love.  If they are going to have any hope in coming out of the other end of the care system in one piece we need to be making their well-being a priority.  Having children running away or growing up as adults with dysfunctional lives, costs society financially.  It would make much more sense to be investing in them early on.

In the book of James in the Bible it says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” (1:27a).  You can easily adapt this to say that a functional and caring society protects those who are most vulnerable.  If you do a search for ‘fatherless’ in the Bible, you’ll see that God has plenty to say on this.  Fatherless is probably the closest biblical term for what these children are.  In Isaiah God says this:

Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow. (1:17)

This review of the care system is a huge opportunity for our Government and agencies to seriously appraise just how children in care should be looked after.  What we need is not a series of sticking plasters, but a fundamental assessment of how the care system can be improved and function successfully.  It won’t be difficult to judge the success of this.  Happy children don’t want to run away from home.  If these numbers start coming down significantly then we’ll know things are being done well, but if in time we see little progress then sadly it will be a damning indictment of our attitudes towards those in care.

We need to pray for wisdom for those involved in reviewing the current system that they’ll make the right decisions and changes and also for carers and all those who have run away or feel the need to.

If you feel the need to do something about this, the Children’s Society are running the Make Runaways Safe campaign.  It only takes 30 seconds to add your name to the list calling on the Government to step up and protect vulnerable runaways.

Also, Tuesday’s Newsnight ran a feature on the sexual exploitation of children in care along with an interview with the Children’s minister.  It’s worth watching if you have a spare few minutes.

Categories: Children & families, Government, Justice

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