The first time James addressed a conference of care professionals, he was just 18. He had spent the previous six months training for the moment. "It was daunting," he says, looking back. "There were 25 or 30 people; it's like, 'Who's this teenager telling us how to do our job?'" Now 23, he recalls that start with a confidence, a sense of assurance, well beyond his years.
The conference at which James spoke was about caring for young people who run away from home. As many as 300 teenagers a day do that, according to the conference organisers, the Children's Society, one of the three charities in the Independent Christmas Appeal.
James's role at the conference was to offer a youthful perspective on runaways, focusing particularly on the issue of sexual exploitation. It's a danger to which runaways are alarmingly vulnerable; one study published last year found that a sixth of them had suffered sexual abuse.
All of the volunteers involved in the project – James, and his fellow 16- to 25-year olds – have had some experience of the issues being discussed. It offers an authority not present when middle-aged, middle-class professionals holds forth. "Really, it makes all the difference," agrees Geraldine Boyles, senior project worker.
In addressing the conferences, the volunteers are working towards one goal: the creation of a safety net for young runaways. At present, it is all too easy for young people who run away from home to fall through the cracks. Professionals don't necessarily talk to one another in any routine, codified way. Department for Education numbers for those registered as missing differ wildly from those lodged with the police. And geography remains a problem, so locally rooted are care services.
Within London, it is perfectly possible that a runaway could go missing from one borough, turn up in quite another, while holding down a job in a third. And, says Boyles, there will be no clear delineation of responsibility: "Different boroughs have different priorities. Ideally, there would be a single joined-up approach."
It's this aspect that James emphasises in his workshops: "We do exercises to demonstrate the importance of communication, of obtaining and interpreting information correctly."
Of course, it doesn't help that official definitions of runaways tend to exclude the under-16s. Last year, the only remaining shelter for minors closed. The thinking behind this wasn't in itself outrageous – under-16s should be at home with their parents and it is the duty of the police to find those who are missing. But, in reality, the move was far from pragmatic: more than 70 per cent of runaways go missing without ever being reported and, without recourse to shelter, underage runaways find themselves stuck in a catch-22. It's with an eye to this that James and his colleagues are embarking on their next project.
From this month, they will begin going into schools in Greenwich, south-east London, addressing young people directly. Alongside James will be 18-year-old Darren, a trainee who was prompted to sign up after his own positive experience with a social worker: "They really sorted things out. It made me realise I wanted to do that in the future."
The aim of these visits will be prevention. James and Darren hope to strike pre-emptively, alerting pupils to the dangers they may not realise are around them – and ways they can get help.
Without the efforts of volunteers like James and Darren, the Children's Society would not be able to cast its net so wide. But even with their help, resources are limited. Projects like these take money, so they are very much dependent on funding.
As much as 40 per cent of the Society's income is at risk due to soon-to-expire contracts. In the wake of the Spending Review, many projects saw their funding extended on a short-term basis rather than for the usual three years.
At the same time, those "push" factors which work to encourage young runaways out of their homes and on to the streets are more prevalent as budgets are squeezed and unemployment threatens household stability.
At a time when tens of thousands of children run away each year, the Children's Society's work couldn't be more vital.
Appeal partners: Who we're supporting
Save the Children
Save the Children works in 120 countries, including the UK. They save children's lives, fight for their rights and help them fulfil their potential. Save the Children's vital work reaches more than 8 million children each year - keeping them alive, getting them into school and protecting them from harm. www.savethechildren.org.uk
The Children's Society
The Children's Society provides vital support to vulnerable children and young people in England, including those who have run away from home. Many have experienced neglect, isolation or abuse, and all they want is a safe and happy home. Their project staff provide essential support to desperate children who have no-one else to turn to.
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity
Rainbow Trust Children's Charity provides emotional and practical support for families who have a child with a life threatening or terminal illness. For families living with a child who is going to die, Rainbow Trust is the support they wished they never had to turn to, but struggle to cope without.
At The Independent we believe that these organisations can make a big difference to changing many children's lives.
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