All children deserve the best possible start in life; to be cared for and protected from harm. Unfortunately, many will experience pressures, from within their family, peers or the wider community. For some children, these pressures increase the possibility of damaging behaviour and negative outcomes such as self-harm, substance misuse, sexual exploitation and running away, which puts them in danger and is often a sign of underlying problems in their life.
The most common reasons for running away are arguments and conflicts with parents or step-parents; neglect, rejection, emotional or physical abuse or to seek respite from parental issues such as alcohol/drug dependency or mental health problems. Running away is closely associated with difficulties at school, including bullying, truancy or exclusion. That a child has run away should alert agencies to the fact that this child may require support.
If young people leave home for whatever reason, having sufficient support in place to protect them from danger and services which can reunite them with loved ones or guardians if appropriate, is important. Having lobbied for action since 2000, I secured the first Holyrood debate on this issue on 31 January 2002, following the disturbing results of Missing out – Young Runaways in Scotland, which revealed that one in nine (11%) of Scottish children ran away or were forced to leave home before the age of 16. One in six young people reported being physically or sexually assaulted while away from home, a quarter slept rough and one in seven resorted to risky survival strategies such as stealing and begging. Many found themselves lonely, hungry and frightened.
Thankfully, this debate led to the establishment of a working group on Young Runaways and Children Abused through Prostitution, dedicated to taking forward preventative work to address the underlying issues which increase a child’s vulnerability and provide services to support Scotland’s children and young people. The importance of early identification and assessment in protecting young people was outlined, along with Area Child Protection Committees working to organise and coordinate services for vulnerable children and young people, specifically runaways. This resulted in a more concrete focus on dealing with child sexual exploitation, given that 70% of sexually exploited young people run away from home.
In 2014, the SNP Government published its National Action Plan to Prevent and Tackle Child Sexual Exploitation; setting out actions to be taken across government, statutory and third sector organisations to improve how Scotland deals with this issue. Actions to date include the creation of our National Child Sexual Exploitation Group, issuing guidance to practitioners and raising awareness.
The National Missing Persons Framework for Scotland, launched in May 2017, sets out the roles and the shared responsibilities of respective agencies, key national objectives and commitments to prevent people from going missing and limiting harm when they do. Their work revealed that 30,000 people are reported missing to Police Scotland each year, 62% being children and young people. However, thanks to agencies and their dedicated staff working in a coordinated and cooperative way, 88% are found or return safely within 48 hours.
The SNP Government provided Missing People, a charity helping missing people and their loved ones reconnect, with £59,519. In partnership with Shelter Scotland, Barnardo’s Scotland and the University of Glasgow, the charity uses its resources to deliver free, Scotland-wide training.
Protecting children means being concerned for their safety, understanding when and how to share these concerns and taking the steps needed to ensure their wellbeing. The SNP Government is committed to protecting Scotland’s children and young runaways.
North Ayrshire Child Protection Committee offers advice on local support for vulnerable children and young people at: http://childprotectionnorthayrshire.info/cpc.