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Barnardo’s warns how runaway children are vulnerable to sexual exploitation this International Missing Children’s Day

Release Date: 25 May 2017

After last week’s harrowing BBC One drama Three Girls, Barnardo’s is warning how children who run away from home can be vulnerable to sexual exploitation.

Today (Thursday, May 25) is International Missing Children’s day, which falls exactly one week after the conclusion of the three-part programme that dramatised the real life grooming and sexual exploitation of teenage girls in Rochdale.

In the drama, the three girls Holly, Ruby and Amber – fictional characters based on real life victims –  frequently ran away from home and fell prey to an organised gang of men who raped and abused them and trafficked them to other towns for sex.

A child goes missing in the UK every three minutes and from April 2016-April 2017 Barnardo’s worked with 3,444 people through its missing children’s services across the country.  

Barnardo’s service user Lisa*, who started running away when she was just 11, said:

Sometimes young people act naughty and go missing. But they don’t go missing because they’re naughty, it’s because they’ve got things going on in their lives.

Sometimes it’s better going missing from home than staying at home. I can’t really think how many times I’ve been missing. I’d got quite a bit going on in my life with my parents and my other family. Sometimes, to make it go away, I ran away.

Barnardo’s runs services across the UK that work with children who are at risk of going missing or have been missing. They are often run in close association with a service supporting victims of, or young people at risk of, child sexual exploitation.

Most children who run away will come home and the leading children’s charity carries out ‘return home’ interviews with young people to gather information about why they were running away. The interviews provide an opportunity to start building a relationship and work towards keeping them safe long term.

Children may choose to run away because they are unhappy or unsafe at home but there are ‘pull’ as well as ‘push’ factors that can cause children to leave; young people could be trying to fit in with friends or they may have been groomed.

Lisa* added

The first time I went missing was when I was meeting my boyfriend. I tried to ask my parents if I could go and meet him but I got the answer ‘no’ so I ran away. He wasn’t the best of boyfriends - I got beaten up by him. I didn’t get treated well at all by him. I wish I hadn’t got with him and that I’d never met him.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:

Children run away for all sorts of reasons, even those with supportive families, so it’s vital that parents, carers or another trusted adult talks to their children about the risks involved in going missing from home.

To a young person, going to meet someone they met at a party or online might seem like a lot of fun but they could be running into danger. They could be at risk of being groomed by perpetrators who want to isolate them from their families and friends in order to abuse them.

It’s vital that we understand the reasons why children run away so problems can be addressed and the return home interview Barnardo’s carries out helps to do just that.

We work with children as individuals to help them understand why they are running away and pinpoint the push factors.

Lisa* said:

The longest period I’ve been missing for is two months. It was really difficult for me. I was really stressed, I was scared. I had places to go to but I didn’t trust the people. I still went - I thought they were my friends but they’re not.

I used to stay in a couple of flats – It’s stressful to find people you can stay with when you’re missing – one was 24 and the other was 28. I was 14. When I stayed at the flats I used to take drugs, drink and go to parties.

Often young people who go missing are running away to find relationships that they don’t have at home and Barnardo’s staff work to build up a relationship with the young person, provide stability and advocate on their behalf for help.

Lisa* added:

Sometimes you feel like you haven’t got anyone on your side but you have. At this point in time I’ve got quite a lot of people on my side. I’ve got Barnardo’s, I’ve got social workers and I’ve got my guardians that I live with and they try to help you to understand the risk of going missing from home.

My advice is to try to speak to your carers, your parents, your social worker or other services - try to ask for their advice. Speak to them and they can probably help you with it. Now I’m trying to change my life around. I’ve signed up for college and I’m doing hair and beauty and I’m changing completely. I’m making a new life out of my old one and putting my past behind me. Everyone has a chance to start afresh and I hope other young people have a chance to change their life like me.

For more advice on how to help protect your child from sexual exploitation you can download a copy of Barnardo’s Be Safe Guide.

* Lisa is not her real name.

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