Runaway refuge says under-13s seeking help have doubled

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The number of children under 13 seeking help from a runaways' refuge has doubled in the past year, the Children's Society reports today. Yet there are only four safe houses for them in Britain. Glenda Cooper, Social Affairs Correspondent, looks at the problem of child runaways.

More children run away during January than in any other month - and they are getting younger, according to new figures released by the Children's Society.

Calls and referrals from children aged 13 and under doubled during 1997, and the average age of the young people helped has fallen from 14 to 13 in recent years.

Between October 1996 and October 1997, five children as young as 10 years old used the Leeds Safe House - only one of four such refuges in Britain.

In January 1996, the number of children using the Safe House rose by more than one-third. The society thinks that this is because the Christmas and new year period can be a stressful time for families and can be a contributory factor in a child's decision to run away.

More than three-quarters of young people who contacted the Safe House had run away or been thrown out by their families; 11 per cent had run away from residential care, and 5 per cent from foster care.

"Whatever the reason a child has for running away they clearly feel that the situation they are running from has reached a crisis," said Ian Sparks, chief executive of the Children's Society.

"As parents, we sometimes underestimate the very real unhappiness that can arise from problems such as bullying or problems at school.

"Children who have run away tell us consistently that they have not been listened to by the adults in their life.

"Unless we listen, problems that may seem unimportant to us can escalate to a point where a young person feels that running away is their only option."

More than six out of ten children called as a result of abuse or threats of violence, including sexual abuse, and almost 40 per cent called the Safe House because of problems over physical violence.

One in ten had run away from residential care, and 5 per cent from foster care.

For those in care, the threat of violence from other children was their most common concern.

The charity called for the Government to provide funding for a network of street and refuge projects which could offer a safety net for child runaways, as called for in the Utting report.

The charity asked for an urgent meeting with ministers last August, but says its request has been refused.

"It is estimated that 43,000 children run away every year, many repeatedly," said Mr Sparks.

"It is a national disgrace that successive governments have left it to charities such as the Children's Society to try to help these most vulnerable children.

"We still have only four refuges in Britain - three run by the Children's Society - all relying almost entirely on the generosity of the public for funds ...

"We want to see the Labour government make it an urgent new year's resolution to develop a strategy to tackled the increasing problem of child runaways."