Refuge for child runaways to close

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The Independent Online

London's only refuge for under-16 runaways is to close at the end of this month, threatening to leave hundreds of Britain's most vulnerable children on the streets.

London's only refuge for under-16 runaways is to close at the end of this month, threatening to leave hundreds of Britain's most vulnerable children on the streets.

Centrepoint, the youth homelessness charity, which manages the refuge in partnership with the NSPCC, said logistical and financial problems prompted the closure. The timing, as winter begins, could not be worse.

The refuge looks after around 300 runaways a year, mostly aged 12-16, although some are as young as 10.

"We've been involved since 1987 and we've struggled," said Victor Adebowale, chief executive of Centrepoint. "We've come to the conclusion that the refuge service is best run by an organisation that has child protection as its core business."

The closure, said Mr Adebowale, will be "temporary". Centrepoint and the NSPCC are meeting tomorrow with the Department of Health and Westminster Council (which both contribute financially to the refuge), as well as senior representatives from other local authorities, to try and devise a rescue package.

Last night the ChildLine charity, one of the organisations which refers young people to the refuge, described its closure as a serious loss. Valerie Howarth, the charity's chief executive, said: "We know that these facilities are not easy to fund or to run, but some way must be found to ensure that this vital resource is preserved."

Children can stay for up to two weeks at the refuge - the location of which is kept secret - and the aim is to find a "safe" solution to their predicament which may involve, for example, family mediation or the provision of advocates to negotiate with care authorities.

"The refuge provides breathing space," says Madeline Ismach, London regional director of the NSPCC, which provides child protection workers to the project. "It is important for children out on the streets, many of whom have run away from a vulnerable position, in care or abusive homes."

The only alternative is social services, whose priority is safety and which, in the absence of evidence of sexual or serious physical abuse, is likely to send the young person home. Without their problems being resolved, the child may then "just jump off the train", as Ms Ismach put it, or run away again.

From the outset, the refuge has been dogged by financial problems. Centrepoint has to bill individual local authorities for each child who stays, and many have not been paying.

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