In the largest study of its kind, involving 13,000 young people, researchers foundthree-quarters of the children are running away for the first time and and nearly a quarter of those are less than 11. One in nine run away or are forced to leave home before 16.
Most of the persistent runaways are trying to escape, violence, physical or sexual abuse and neglect at home. They are forced to sleep rough on the streets because regular hostels for the homeless are not allowed to admit them.
Children end up sleeping in derelict buildings, fields and even graveyards and more than half are hurt by strangers. One in seven children are physically or sexually assaulted while away from home. Boys are more likely to be attacked or sexually assaulted.
There are only two hostels with a special dispensation to accept young people under the age of 16, for up to two weeks. The hostels in Leeds and London have a total of 13 beds.
Children who run away end up having little schooling, many cannot read or write, they suffer extreme hardship and abuse and as adults end up being some of the most socially excluded people. Professor Mike Stein, from the University of York and director of the research project, called Still Running, said although girls were slightly more likely to run away than boys their background did not seem to matter.
"They run away from families that abuse or neglect them," said. "They run away from families who have difficulties, particularly step-parent families. They run away when they reach 15 or 16 if they don't get on with their parents and they are more likely to run away from children's homes than family situations."
The study estimated that of the 18,000 children under the age of 11 who run away for the first time, 6,000 are less than eight years old.
"It is very worrying that a small number of people at a very young age become detached from their families, their schools and their communities," said Professor Stein. "They are outside the system completely."
The research also reveals that 21 per cent of young people living in step-families had run away once, compared to 13 per cent in lone-parent families and 7 per cent of those living with their birth families.
Four out of five children said they ran away to escape family conflict, violence, or abuse. Children who ran away before the age of 11 were most likely to have experienced a death in the family or their parents' divorce. Most children who ran away from care were runaways before going into care.
Ian Sparks, chief executive of The Children's Society, which took part in the study, said: "The sheer scale of the problem tells us we have a crisis on our hands. It means in every classroom, in every school the chances are at least one child will run away in the next year.
"When children feel alienated and rejected, then running away can seem some sort of solution."
He added: "This issue cuts across class boundaries - children are almost as likely to run away from a leafy suburb as an inner-city estate. The outcomes of ignoring their cries for help may be terrible.
"We spoke to a small but significant number of children who had been completely detached from any form of help and support for over six months. These are the children that no-one notices when they disappear."Reuse content