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Too old to show up on the child protection radar, too young for a hostel, the 15,000 under-16s forced out of home this year face serious risks, says new research

Saba Salman 24th March 2004

Family breakdown and physical abuse has created a forgotten generation of vulnerable teenagers who then slip through the care net because the system focuses on younger children, a disturbing new report claims.

Research published today by the Children's Society, Thrown Away: Young People Forced to Leave Home, suggests that around 15,000 under-16s in Britain, an estimated one in 50 youngsters, are forced to leave their homes every year.

The charity believes that the youngsters, mostly young teenagers, with many aged around 15, are in a service provision no-mans land. Too old to be regarded as a child protection priority but unable to access emergency accommodation and benefits until they reach 16, they are forced into rough sleeping, crime or prostitution to survive. One in four sleeps rough or at a stranger's house, according to the charity, while the rest stay with friends or other relatives.

"We see them as children who've been discarded or thrown away, and left to fend for themselves," explains Children's Society assistant director for campaigns Tim Linehan. "We need to remember that child protection is for children under 18." The children's bill published earlier this month rightly focuses on early intervention, says the society, but fails to address older children.

The research is the first to focus on children physically ejected from or told to leave their homes, rather than those "absent without permission". The society calculates that with one fifth of the annual 77,000 youngsters running away forced to leave home before 16, there may be more than 15,000 such cases each year.

One in four of the young people blame family breakdown as the cause of being thrown out; around one in 10 say their parents beat them; and another one in 10 feel their families no longer care for them. After leaving, one in five are physically or sexually assaulted.

Often, adds the society's policy officer, Kathy Evans, they are viewed as a threat rather than as the ones who are under threat: "When you talk about older young people, they're talked about in the context of antisocial behaviour, youth offending or teenage pregnancy."

Sarah, not her real name, was 15 when she says she was forced to leave home. Her mother slapped her from the age of 10: "She'd scream at me to 'come here so I can hit you', so I would. You do what your mum tells you when you're little."

Although the violence stopped as she got older, the verbal abuse and controlling behaviour continued: "My mum didn't like my friends and, one night after an argument about me going out, said she wouldn't let me see them again. I ran upstairs, packed a few clothes and ran out."

Social services did not deem her sufficiently at risk, no hostel would take her in as a child under-16 and the police offered to drive her home. After several nights sleeping rough, an outreach worker put her in touch with Children's Society staff who helped her get into a children's home. Now 20, she has her own flat.

To support teenagers like Sarah, the society wants the creation of a national network of safe accommodation - there is just one under-16 direct access refuge in London, run by St Christopher's Fellowship in partnership with the NSPCC. Emergency overnight hostels, more short-term foster care and family support services should also be explored. Evans adds: "There's a lot of focus on parenting for young children but little access to support on demand for parents of teenagers."

In 2002, the Department of Health issued guidance for councils on young runaways that included appointing a "runaways manager" and doing an audit of services for youngsters at risk of going missing. According to the Children's Society, however, only seven of 150 authorities surveyed had such policies in place by December last year.

The Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) is not entirely happy with the suggestion that the child protection system is failing older children. John Coughlan, co-chair of the ADSS children and families committee, says: "I don't see the situation as being as poor as the Children's Society suggests. I don't agree that there's a kind of approach that says 'they're beyond primary school age so we won't deal with them'."

Coughlan also warns that the figures should be treated with caution: in some cases the children are away for one or two nights and are eventually reunited with their parents, he says. However, he concedes that councils could do more to implement the guidelines on runaways.

Foster care campaigners, meanwhile, warn that emergency fostering must be one of several solutions, especially when there is a shortage of 8,000 foster families in Britain. The Fostering Network's head of services, Sue Gourvish, adds: "The solutions will differ from child to child, with some returning home, others moving on to semi-independence and others living with foster families."

· St Christopher's is a charity and housing association providing care, accommodation, education, training and support to children, young people and vulnerable adults where family life is no longer possible. For more information call: 020 8543 3619.

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