Children like little Kayleigh Ward who spend time on the streets are portrayed as knowing beyond their years. But what they really need is help, not labels, says Paul Vallely
The contrast is striking. Yesterday, police announced they were launching a nation-wide hunt for 15-year-old Paul Adams who had been missing for two days; a major search in the North-east had failed to find any trace of him after he went out for a ride on his BMX bike on Thursday night. It made the top of the news bulletins.

In Chester, meanwhile, Yvonne Ward was out on the streets again - as she has been every night - searching for her missing nine-year-old daughter. Kayleigh Ward vanished 18 days ago and yet her disappearance has provoked surprisingly little national concern - so much so that the Sunday Mirror was prompted yesterday to write a headline: "Kayleigh: Why does no one care?"

It is not that the police are inactive. More than 100 officers have been detailed to the search for the child. But considering the circumstances - a nine-year-old girl alone on the streets over Christmas - it seems extraordinary how little our sensation-hungry press have made of the case.

A clue may lie in the fact that almost all the early reports of her disappearance made great play of the fact that the slight 4ft 7in girl had been described by police as a "streetwise" child, and the Blacon council estate where she lived was reported as being a nest of crime, drugs and child prostitution to boot.

Kayleigh, it was said, was nicknamed "Oddball" or "Oddy"; she was known to have associated with gypsies and to have regularly chatted to vagrants in the centre of the city. The papers reported that her aunt was last week convicted of drug-pushing and that her mother had been evicted from her council home for not paying the rent and now lives in a hostel.

"It is very clear that this child comes from a fairly disturbed background," says William Yule, who is Professor of Applied Child Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. "It all makes you wonder, reading between the lines, whether the police are putting out an edited version."

Perhaps so. Or perhaps there is something else at work here. What it seems we are being told, in code, is that somehow we don't need to worry about this lost nine-year-old. It's not that she isn't in danger. Just that, in some disturbing way, she isn't worth worrying about. Trouble, of some sort, is her lot.

It's an interesting word, "streetwise". Look it up in a newspaper database and you find an odd collection of adults to whom it is applied. Carol Thatcher was so described - as a compliment - in reports on her biography of her consort father. So was Randy Roddy Wright, sometime Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Islands, by those who wanted to show he was a modern kind of priest. And when the Anglican priest Fr Christopher Gray was murdered outside his church, Dr Robert Runcie was moved to write that many would say: "He was a good man, but he should have been more streetwise."

But look at the way it is applied to children and something else emerges. The murdered child Rikki Neave was "streetwise". At the age of six, he played truant regularly and was encouraged by his mother to shop-lift and beaten if he returned home empty-handed. "He was a streetwise child and we thought he had just run off somewhere and would turn up. I honestly thought we were going to find him alive," said Det Supt Keith Chamberlain, who led the murder inquiry.

The teenage killer of the London headmaster Philip Lawrence was "streetwise". So was a 10-year-old boy discovered pushing drugs from his scooter. So were the two "teenage thugs" who abducted a nice public schoolboy - Thomas Birkert - and held him in slavery. And, if you go back far enough, Robert Thompson - child A in the James Bulger murder trial - was not just "streetwise" but "very streetwise".

With streetwise children, it would appear, we are somehow absolved of the responsibility to care deeply. "Streetwise has come to mean the opposite of innocent. It's a way of saying: 'She's not one of us, she's just one of them. Her relatives are criminals and her mother lives in a hostel.' If something happens to a child like that it's somehow not so shocking as if it happened to a nice middle-class child," says Michelle Elliott, director of Kidscape, the charity established to make children aware of personal danger. "Why is there no nationwide search for Kayleigh? If it was a middle-class child who had gone missing, the media would be hysterical."

It is different if you are middle class. When 18-year-old Thomas Birkert disappeared - kidnapped outside a video shop in Kensington, west London, by the teenage residents of a council estate and forced into withdrawing pounds 700 with his cash card to buy them designer clothes, cigarettes and champagne - his father, a financial planning consultant, said: "The most difficult thing was that the police seemed to think at first that there was nothing wrong with Thomas going off without telling his parents."

The gap in perception was revealing. "All of us create our own social world," says Professor Yule. "It seems that those kids we call 'streetwise', even though they are walking down the same street as us, see a world which is different to the one we see."

Yet it is a phenomenon on which social psychologists have done little real research, according to Professor Charles des Forges, a child development expert at Exeter University. "Some studies have been done on children who live on the streets in Brazil; how they trade and so on - some of them are extremely good at mathematics - but there is nothing comparable about how children survive when they go on the streets in Britain. I mean simple research on how they live, keep warm, get food - just facts, not value judgements."

Of value judgements, of course, there are plenty. There are all the prejudices about the so-called "underclass"; the vast majority of young people who end up behind bars are from working-class backgrounds. Then there is all the usual stuff about adolescents - the influence of television, computers, peer groups and pop culture, the urge for instant gratification, lack of good manners, etc, etc, all of which produce an increase in crime (from driving offences to shoplifting) among middle-class teenagers, too - not to mention drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, depression, suicide and so forth. And all of it exacerbated by the lengthening of adolescence as puberty starts earlier and the adult world of work (which they once entered as young apprentices) is put off by education or unemployment.

Michelle Elliott is unimpressed. "Streetwise is not a term you can sensibly use about a child of nine. To do so is to attribute to a child abilities far beyond her age. Such children may be unsupervised. They may be out of control. They may be cunning. But they are not truly able to fend for themselves."

Daniel Handley was also aged nine, she points out, when he disappeared after a day cycling around his estate, helping to return trolleys to an Asda supermarket in return for tips. Daniel, too, had problems at school. His mother had had five sons by three fathers.

When Daniel did not come home a similar scenario evolved. "His parents - or at least his mother and her black boyfriend - were arrested. Their back garden was dug up," says Ms Elliott. "Only then it turned out the boy had been abducted by paedophiles and sexually abused. Before they murdered him he asked his killers: 'Are you going to kill me now?' Daniel was streetwise, too, we all said. We need to ask, when we use that word, what are we really trying to say to ourselves?"

The answer may be a truth we would rather avoidn