Strained family finances are driving an increasing number of middle-class children to run away from home, with arguments over money proving "the tipping point" for vulnerable young people, leading charities have warned.
The news comes as an internal report compiled by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), seen by The Independent on Sunday, reveals that councils across the country are failing to provide services for young runaways.
"It is the middle-class parents at the moment who are struggling to pay bills and keep hold of jobs, and who don't notice that their children are being bullied or having other problems, and are at risk of running away," said Andy McCullough, chairman of the English Coalition for Young Runaways.
Of the 100,000 under-16s who run away from home every year in the UK, a surprisingly high proportion come from affluent families. Research by the Children's Society found that 10.2 per cent of children from wealthy families have run away, compared with 11.5 per cent of children from low-income households.
"The recession may be acting as the tipping point for children," said Martin Houghton-Brown, deputy director of the Children's Society "We did a survey about the recession and half of children were telling us that they had heard families talking about the recession in a worried way. Our evidence shows that children run away from every kind of background."
Highlighting the fact that running away is an issue that affects young people from every social background is a new project launched by the resolutely middle-class Girl Guides. Working with the Railway Children charity, guides across the country will be learning, from young people who have experienced it, about the realities of running away. "It is an issue that affects our members. Because of the reasons that cause children to run away, it is a classless issue," said Helen Humphreys, a project leader for Girlguiding UK.
Various studies have found problems at home to be the primary reason young people run away, ahead of anxieties at school or troubles with peers. Girls are more likely to decamp than boys, and the peak age is 14 to 15.
Speaking to a group of Girl Guides assembled in Cheltenham last Thursday, 14-year-old "Sarah" explained how problems with her alcoholic mother drove her to run away: "When she was drunk it was very hard to deal with her. We were arguing about everyday things, like what time I had to be home in the evening, but she'd get very angry.
"Sometimes when she was drinking and we had an argument I'd run away. I'd go to friends or just stay out, sometimes for the whole weekend. When I stayed out whole nights I was scared, and it was really cold, but it was so bad at home that nothing would make me go back.
"I got a support worker through a local organisation called Alternative Solutions to Running Away, and talking to her really helps. I'm back with my mum now, and it is a bit better but I don't want to stay there long-term. When I'm 16 I'll move out into supported accommodation."
Child welfare organisations estimate that there are only a dozen emergency beds available for runaways in the entire country, three of which are in Scotland, and all of which are run by charities. This means that most young people who run away are forced seek shelter with friends, acquaintances or strangers, or to sleep rough, placing them at risk. The DCSF admits that it has no idea how many emergency beds are provided for runaways by local councils.
A preparatory document for the review of emergency accommodation, which is due out later this month, stated: "An estimated 12 per cent of the 150 English local authorities are making emergency services available, but the number of emergency beds provided is unknown." The Children's Society last year found that only 12 per cent of local authorities had any services at all for runaways.
While ministers acknowledge that services for runaways must be improved, a proposal to establish a network of US-style "refuges" to house runaways on an emergency basis was recently rejected.
"Putting the costs of such a proposal to one side, it's important to remember that there are flaws with the US system," explained a briefing note given to the children's minister Baroness Morgan before a meeting with the all-party parliamentary Group on Children Who Run Away or Go Missing. "Publicising where refuges are in the way they do in the US is essentially putting up a sign saying 'lots of vulnerable young people staying here', and can put them at enormous risk of exploitation."
The Government estimates that one in six young runaways will sleep rough, and one in 12 will be hurt or harmed.
"Often kids end up 'sofa surfing', and while they might stay with a friend the first night, then they'll move on to a friend of a friend, and soon end up staying with strangers. This places them at very high risk," Mr Houghton-Brown said.
Growing concerns over the lack of beds and support services available prompted the Government to introduce a new performance indicator in April, which will judge how well local authorities cater for runaways.
"The Government will be helping local authorities to put in place better systems and protocols to help this vulnerable group of young people," Lady Morgan said. "Later this month, we will be publishing statutory guidance for local authorities on this issue, which is something we committed to doing in the Young Runaways Action Plan we launched last year."
Although results of the new "National Indicator 71" will not be published until July, the IoS has established that the first results gathered have indicated that the vast majority of councils are providing a barely adequate service for runaways. Each local authority is being assessed on five criteria, including how they gather information about running away; how well they co-operate with organisations such as the police to meet the needs of runaways; and how hard they work to prevent children fleeing their homes in the first place.
Councils were told to rate their own performance on a scale of 0 to 3 in five key areas of provision for young runaways. An internal DCSF report has revealed that the average score of the 120 councils who have replied so far was 7.4, less than half the maximum.
The briefing paper, obtained by the IoS under Freedom of Information legislation, reveals that 80 per cent of councils that completed the assessment gave themselves a score of between 5 and 10 overall, which the department said was "in line with expectations". But, even though the initial appraisal was based on self-assessment, a number of councils gave themselves a "zero" rating in several areas. And officials from the government-appointed body overseeing services for runaways warned that even those that registered the highest scores should not be taken at face value.
"We are slightly surprised by the number of local authorities that have assessed themselves with very high scores," the multi-agency Young Runaways Working Group observed. "Seven score 12 or more, most of which are not authorities known to be beacons of good practice."
Senior MPs last night claimed the revelations suggested local authorities and the Government still had not faced up to the huge problem of tens of thousands of children whose home lives were so troubled that the only solution is to run away.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, secretary of the all-party parliamentary group, said: "There is a complete failure to have a systematic approach across all the agencies involved, and to have proper procedures in place to deal with children running away from children's homes or their own homes.
"Local authorities, the Government and Ofsted inspectors need to look at this whole issue to make sure that these children do not slip through the net. The details that have emerged from local councils so far suggest that not all of them have signed up to what ministers say they want to see happen."
On the road to exploitation: 'I couldn't cope with how my mum treated me'
"I started running away because of abuse and neglect at home," says Jess Lee, 21, from Derbyshire. "My mum lost her temper constantly, and gave me lots of responsibility from a young age: I had to cook dinner when I was seven. I started running away when I was 12, going missing for a couple of hours and then being brought back by the police.
When I was 13 I ran away and said I wasn't going back, so social services sent me to live with my dad in Devon. A year later the issues flared up again – I couldn't cope with how my mum had treated me, or that my dad had abandoned me when I was younger. I went to stay on a friend's sofa and stayed away for three months. At first I was with friends but after a while I was staying with strangers. People want things in return, and you don't realise until it is too late. That's when you get exploited.
I got into an awful situation, the police got involved, and I was placed with a foster family. They were fantastic. I needed to feel like I was wanted, that I had someone to listen to me. I got 11 GCSEs and went to college. Services for runaways are great in Devon but non-existent in Derbyshire, so I lobbied for funding here. In 2007 we opened the Derbyshire Runaways Project, which helped 400 children last year alone."