On the track of young runaways

RUNNING off to the bright lights almost sounds like a teenage rite of passage and every year thousands of youngsters leave home in a hurry.

Some may just be in a strop, others think the streets of London really are paved with the proverbial gold. But there will always also be those running off to escape untold problems at home.

The majority of youngsters are found very quickly and returned to their often concerned families or carers. But there are always some who disappear into the crowds.

An award-winning initiative launched by Central Scotland Police aims not only to find these young runaways, returning them home safe and well, but to get to the root of the problems that led them to running off in the first place.

Every year in Scotland around 9000 youngsters run away from home.

In September 2009, research carried out by the public protection unit of the local force was looking at early intervention involving children who go missing in Forth Valley.

Detective Chief Inspector Brian Johnston, who heads the unit, said: “As police we were very good at finding children and returning them home. But it raised the question how do we stop children, especially the most vulnerable, going missing and how do we protect them?

“There was one youngster from the Falkirk area who had gone missing 26 times in three months and that was really the catalyst for the initiative. We spoke to our partners in health, education and social work and came up with an action plan.”

Initial studies discovered that a scheme down south to discover why young runaways left home had proved successful, while a partnership working in Grampian was also getting results.

Community police officers were given a key role in the initiative. The DCI explained: “These officers know the area and are known by the people in it. They will know who the vulnerable children are and those who have been missing before. Community officers now visit children and young people in their home within five days of them being brought back. These return home welfare interviews are a ‘safe and well’ check to discover if the child has suffered any harm, who they were with and where they were.

“Children who are in care are among the most vulnerable in the community but they are treated no differently from any other and will receive the same follow up visits.”

Two police officers are assigned full-time to the project to deal with the paperwork.

One of them, Sergeant Allyson Blair, said the scheme was introduced in Clackmannanshire last September before going live in Stirling and Falkirk. It deals with under-16s, but also under-18s who are being “looked after and accommodated” by the local authorities.

She said: “When they go missing it is handled by front-line officers. But then when they are traced it comes to my department. During the return home interview, the officers try to discover if there is any underlying reason for the child going missing. Some may have been missing for only a few hours and others overnight, but we are interested in their well being no matter how long it has been.”

If the youngster runs away on three or more occasions then Sgt Blair brings together partners in social work and health to share information and discuss the incident.

After five episodes in a 90-day period, a first stage interview is held, again involving police and partners, but this time with the parent or carer also attending.

DCI Johnston added: “It’s all about trying to discover the reason they are going missing and to prevent them going missing again. It’s all about prevention and protecting – there are a lot of dangers out there that a child often doesn’t appreciate.”

This is borne out of stark statistics which show between 17 and 28 per cent of children who run away sleep rough or with a stranger and one in six of runaways are sexually assaulted.

If a child goes missing on nine occasions in 90 days a second-stage meeting takes place when everyone gets round the table and a clear action plan is drawn up. However, the police stressed it is very unusual for a child in Forth Valley to go missing on more than nine occasions.

Although the initiative is still very much in its infancy, it has already received a Scottish Police Award and has its success stories. These include a young boy in a residential establishment who ran away several times but, after involvement from the young runaways team including a visit to his care facility, has settled down, while a return welfare interview with a young girl uncovered that she had been frightened to go back home because she was afraid her mother’s partner might try to assault her. This was passed on to social workers for their intervention.

Taking the initiative a step further, Central Scotland Police has recently become the first force in Scotland to link up with the charity Missing People to contact runaways.

A text message can be sent to the missing youngster’s mobile offering the organisation’s support to help with the issues that cause them to leave home.

Police recognise that a vulnerable young person may be unwilling to speak to officers but using TextSafe allows the charity to act as a go-between and start a dialogue which will hopefully see them return safely.

The DCI added: “We don’t have many cases nowadays of youngsters heading off to London for the bright lights, but there are a few who head for Glasgow or Edinburgh. There are also those who link up with someone on the internet and arrange to meet, only to discover that the Justin Bieber lookalike isn’t as young as they made out.

“The project deals with everything from the inquisitive four-year-old who opens the door and wanders off or the child who is 15 minutes late home from school to the teenager who is away overnight. If they turn up a short time later, good and well, but our priority is to protect all youngsters across Central Scotland.”