`If anyone had listened, I'd not have run away'

Record numbers of youngsters are homeless and helpless, writes Ros Wynne-Jones
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When Dominic Lord was 10 years old, he got on a train and got off again when it stopped almost 100 miles later. Then he got on a boat. He didn't know where it was going, he just wanted to get as far away from home as possible. Several hours later, the police picked him up on the Isle of Wight and the authorities placed him in a children's home. He never thought to tell them why he had run away from home, that a man whom he trusted and looked up to was sexually abusing him. "I didn't think anyone would listen," he says, "and I didn't think they'd believe me anyway."

That was the first of countless times Dominic ran away from relatives, foster families and from care. He is 22 now and he has finally stopped running, but he is still haunted by the experience. "I had tried to get back at my abuser by stealing his model cars. They were his pride and joy and I flogged them at school. When the school rang home to say they'd caught me selling them, I felt like everything was on my shoulders and I couldn't take it. I ran away."

This month, more children will run away from home or care than in any other month, according to new statistics released by the Children's Society. In January 1996, the numbers of young people using the charity's safe house in Leeds - one of only four refuges for children in Britain - rose 35 per cent on the previous month.

"January is a difficult month for many poorer families with post-Christmas debts," said Ian Sparks, the charity's chief executive. "Also, young people run from bullying at school - the start of term can be very daunting."

The four refuges - all run by charities without state funding - are the only places under-16s are legally allowed to stay without being returned to their parents or to care homes.

The average age of children running away has dropped from 14 to 13, Save The Children says, while the annual number of children using the Leeds project has risen from 110 to 207 since its opening in 1991. Over the same period, calls to the safe house rose from 500 to more than 1,000, while calls from under-13s have doubled in the past year.

Centrepoint reports similar findings. In 1996, the Centrepoint/NSPCC refuge in London saw runaways as young as 11. Meanwhile, nearly half of the 16 and 17-year-olds who arrived at Centrepoint's emergency shelter said they had first run away before their 16th birthday.

"The problem is that not many adults are willing to listen," said Dominic. "If someone had listened I wouldn't have kept running away."

The children's home was an escape from the abuse, but Dominic's time there was unhappy. "You were always getting into trouble just trying to fit in. At 10, I was getting into petty theft, and the bullying was terrible."

When he was 13, he was sent to another children's home, deep in the countryside. "We would run away and because there was nothing for miles, we would have to sleep in people's greenhouses and sheds," he said.

At 16, he went back to find his mother, who had given him up for fostering when he was nine. Despite the years of dreams he had invested in them finally being together again, it didn't work out. Instead he went to live on the streets of London. "And then I met drugs," he said. "You name it, I've taken it." He developed a serious heroin habit, smoked crack and took to burglary to finance his habits. Several prison sentences followed, during which time he says the drugs he was craving were as freely available as on the outside.

At 20, he gave up the drugs without help while still sleeping in shop doorways. "I did it cold turkey," he said. "Then I started getting my life back together."

Today he is living in one of Centrepoint's projects and feeling optimistic about the future. His immediate aims are to get his own place to live and to find a permanent job working with the mentally handicapped. "People gave me a chance in the end and I want to put something back. I think mentally handicapped people can be frustrated and that is something I can understand."

He shakes his head. "Sometimes I feel about 40 because I've seen so much. But at least it's taught me to seize opportunities - it feels good not to be running away from my life any more."

Centrepoint credit card donation line: Freephone 0800 232320. The Children's Society: 0171-837 4299.