What happened the first time Sharon Dodds's daughter Shelbie ran away is etched indelibly on her memory. It was just a perfectly normal day in the 12-year-old's life. No rows, no drama. Nothing out of the ordinary.
"At 3.30 I put the tea on and was waiting for her to come in from school. At first I thought she might be in detention or at a friend's so I sat waiting," Sharon recalls. But as the minutes began to tick past and the panic levels rose, Sharon, who has five children, started phoning around friends and relatives. No one knew where she was.
"The first thing that goes through your mind is 'Has she got into a car with someone? Has she gone into someone's house and they won't let her out? Has she been killed?' It is the not knowing. She is out there somewhere but what is she doing? Who is she with?"
Even though Shelbie had a troubled childhood she came from a close and loving family and had never gone missing before. Sharon describes being engulfed by a sense of impotence. The urge was to get out and search. Do something, anything. It was a feeling that was to grow familiar over the coming years when the teenager would run away whenever the mood took her. Sometimes Shelbie would stay out all night. On other occasions she would not come back for days.
Seeing them together in the front room of the family home in Stockport, Greater Manchester, with the Christmas decorations up and family photographs on every wall, it seems hard to imagine the anguish of those recent times. "My mum's a laugh. Always has been. You can talk to her," says Shelbie.
But it was not always like that. Things only began to improve when mother and daughter were put in touch with the Safe in the City project in Manchester run by the Children's Society – one of the three charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal. The encounter offered both support and the prospect of a new beginning. Shelbie has stopped running away. She returned to school, completed a course in social care and is now working with the disabled. But it is an ongoing process. Some of the experiences she went through while walking the streets alone at night close to their former home are still too terrible to talk about, her mother says.
Sharon, 51, eloquently expresses what it feels like for the family of runaways who often are forced to suffer in silence.
"When your child runs away you just sit watching the clock, looking out the window and smoking your head off. If you don't smoke you will do by the end of it. You start in a black hole and that hole just gets bigger and bigger," she says.
"You don't know where you are going to look so you go to the park. You feel like you are searching for days even if it is only a few hours. I have even looked in bins in the park," she admits.
While friends and family try to be reassuring, too often it does not help. "People say 'She'll be all right – she'll be back in a couple of hours', or 'She's just being naughty or rebelling'," she adds. "No one could help. I felt trapped."
And even when they do come home the situation can be hard to handle. "It's the shock. You don't know whether to put your arms round them or what. And then when you get up the next day and she is going out you just think, 'Is she going to come home?'"
Shelbie, now 17, is scathing of her younger self. "I was stupid wasn't I? I put myself in danger," she says. "I look back now and I feel sorry for my mum and my family. I realise that I was hurting them and they were worried about me. They just wanted me at home at night," she adds. "But at the time I was angry. I thought I was the black sheep of the family and no one wanted me here."
Her hostility spilled over into her first contact with her Children's Society project worker. "I told her to fuck off. I said 'I don't need any help'. But she was persistent and kept phoning. She came to my house and it was the best thing that I have ever done.
"When I got to know her and she knew me I could open up to her and tell her everything I was feeling," she adds.
"It's comfortable now," says Sharon. "We get on better and we're now like a family." Shelbie is also looking to the future. "I just want a job that I enjoy. I still want to live with my family and just stay normal," she says.
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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