Survey reveals shocking extent of Norfolk child runaways

A charity has warned that the lives of more than 1,000 Norfolk youngsters are 'spiralling out of control' as a shocking new report today reveals the worrying extent of child runaways in the county.

An estimated 1,200 children are putting themselves in serious danger by running away from home or care in Norfolk every year, according to research by The Children's Society, with a further 1,100 in Suffolk.

It warns youngsters can often become the victims of harmful or dangerous experiences as they bid to make it on their own and can resort to begging, stealing or doing 'other things' to survive.

Today the charity, which carried out the survey with thousands of children across the country, said a youngster's decision to run away for even one night was 'clear evidence of a child's life spiralling out of control'.

But only a small minority of the tens of thousands of under 16-year-olds who run away across the country each year are reported as missing by their parents or carers.

Enver Solomon, policy director of The Children's Society which carried out the research, said: 'Seven out of 10 are never reported to the police, so it's a hidden problem in that respect. They are remaining off the radar, very much on the margins. No one knows it's happening.'

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said the estimate for Norfolk – which equates to more than three children running away every day – was worrying.

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He said: 'I find it quite shocking, both as a parent and a member of parliament. We can be sure these figures indicate, in many cases, a wider set of problems so very clearly early intervention is really important.'

The Children's Society report is based on a survey carried out with more than 7,300 14 to 16-year-olds across England.

It estimates about 1,200 children in Norfolk, 1,100 in Suffolk and 900 in Cambridgeshire run away for at least one night each year.

Mr Solomon said responses to the survey – which has been carried out every six years since 1999 – showed the problem of child runaways had not changed in more than 10 years.

He said: 'Children are still running away. Not enough is being done to provide early intervention.'

The charity said its research found 26pc of child runaways found themselves in harmful or dangerous experiences – one in nine was hurt or harmed when they last ran away, while one in six slept rough or stayed with someone they had just met.

Youngsters can resort to stealing to help them survive, can turn to drugs and alcohol, or find themselves the victims of grooming.

Alison Thomas, county council cabinet member for children's services, said anyone working with children in Norfolk took the problem of runaways very seriously.

She said: 'Children who go missing, for whatever reason, place themselves at potential risk which is why there are very clear procedures in place to assess their circumstances, vulnerability and why they may have run away.'

The councillor said children's services and police officers in the county worked together closely whenever a child went missing.

Once found, he or she would be offered an interview with a social worker or another independent person which aimed to help officers understand why a child ran away, who they had been in contact with, where they went, and whether it was likely to happen again.

Mrs Thomas added: 'Everyone working with children takes these responsibilities seriously, whether it is schools, who notice prolonged absence and report this via attendance teams, or social workers who consider the risk of children running away when they make placement decisions.

'Police also prioritise cases where children go missing, working extremely hard to find them and protect them from harm.'

But in many cases, child runaways return again before their absence has been reported to the authorities.

As The Children's Society released Still Running 3, its first report on the issue for six years, it called on the government to create a 'national safety net' for child runaways.

The charity said a decision to run away was often linked to arguments and conflict at home, neglectful parenting and poor family relationships.

Mr Solomon added: 'This needs to be seen as a trigger for early help or support. Our research shows it is potentially a sign that a child is in an abusive or exploitative relationship, there are very close links with sexual exploitation and sexual abuse, and children getting involved in substance misuse.'

Chloe Smith, MP for Norwich North, said while the figures in the report were shocking, its findings should be welcomed. She said: 'It gives us a strong insight into the reasons why children or young people choose or are forced to leave home.'

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