National Post

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Saturday, November 27, 1999

Study sparks debate on Britain's crisis of runaway children
100,000 children flee every year, many driven by pressures of family life
Carl Honore
National Post

LONDON - Britain has been shaken by a new study that puts the number of children running away from home here at 100,000 every year -- more than double earlier estimates.

Still Running, a landmark survey by the Children's Society, found that one in nine British youngsters has fled home by the age of 16, and that a quarter of all runaways are less than 11 years old. Many fall victim to drugs, crime and prostitution.

In a country where even the prime minister, Tony Blair, once ran away from home, the report has stirred debate over national attitudes to children and the family. "No one can remain untouched by this research," said Ian Sparks, head of the Children's Society. "The sheer scale of the problem tells us that we have a crisis on our hands."

The report defines a runaway child as someone under 16 who spends at least one night away from home without permission from a parent or guardian. Most runaways stay with friends and return home later. But thousands of others end up sleeping outdoors.

Stray children are nothing new in Britain. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens wrote about street kids in Victorian London. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, youngsters left home in droves.

Why are so many British kids running away now, when the economy is booming?

Given that children are just as likely to flee leafy suburbs as inner-city slums, the motives for flight seem to lie in the dynamics of the British family.

Most runaways are fleeing domestic violence, sexual abuse or family conflicts. Children in broken families or state care are much more likely to run away than those in stable, two-parent households.

At the moment, Britain, which has never made a cult of the family, has the highest divorce rate -- over 40% -- in Europe.

"The breakdown of the family unit puts a lot of strain on children, and it puts them in higher-risk situations," said Michael Schultz, a sociologist. "When they feel cornered, many kids will simply leave."

There are no comparable statistics for the rest of Europe, but cultural attitudes could be making the runaway problem more acute here. Some observers think Britain's Protestant work ethic puts too much pressure on young people to "stand on their own two feet."

Others believe the British have a tendency to treat children as a nuisance or a burden. Every year, 18,000 kids are simply kicked out into the street by their own parents.

At the same time, the media devote lavish coverage to teen pregnancy, juvenile crime and other bad behaviour by youths.

"We always tend to see the child as either villain or victim," said Mike Stein, a professor of social work at the University of York.

Although the British are now learning to be less uptight about children, said Dr. Stein, they are still not as family-oriented or child-centred as southern Europeans. "In a country like Britain, children can be terribly isolated in their families, hugely isolated," said Carol Smart, professor of sociology at the University of Leeds.

Being a runaway can be a grim affair in Britain. The country has only three small shelters for under-16s, who are exposed to drugs, violence and sexual assault on the streets.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old girl died of hypothermia while sleeping outdoors in Manchester.

A recent report by the United Nations concluded that the experiences of youngsters living on the street in Britain "resonate with those of street children around the world."

There are moves afoot to combat the runaway problem. The Children's Society is lobbying for a nationwide network of shelters, a national missing persons register and better training for social workers and police. At the same time, the Blair government has declared the family to be a priority. Yet with every week that passes, hundreds more children run away from British homes, sometimes without even packing a bag.

Interviewed in a recent documentary, Andy, a 15-year-old who sleeps under a bridge in central London, called for quick action. "They have to do something about this now," he said. "Children should be at home, not out here in the streets."

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