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Archbishop - national safety net needed to help society’s ‘forgotten’ young runaways

Wednesday 30th November 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, paid a visit to The Children’s Society’s Safe In The City project in Birmingham to support the charity’s Make Runaways Safe campaign.

He spent the afternoon talking to young runaways and their families and meeting professionals campaigning for more support for children who run from home or care.
The Archbishop backed the charity’s calls for a national safety net for young runaways. He said in a speech: “It needs backing at the highest level. It needs a bit of money from national government as well as elsewhere - there's no way round that.

"The actual level of knowledge about the scale of the problem is very, very low. The other side of this huge gap, this lack of knowledge, is that young people running away don't know where to go. It is a recipe for forgotten children.
“We live in a society where, quite often, children and young people are expected to be neither seen nor heard. And the vision behind this campaign about caring for the needs of runaways - that's the vision that says 'nobody should be forgotten'.”

Latest research1 by The Children’s Society reveals that 100,000 children in the UK run from home or care every year. That is one child every five minutes.  More than a quarter have been the victim of a harmful or dangerous experience.
The Children’s Society argues that teachers, social workers, police and other professionals are not stepping in and supporting the vast majority of young runaways. Around two-thirds of children who run away are not “visible” to professionals.
Cassandra, 14, a former runaway from Birmingham, who spoke to the Archbishop, said: “I used to run away all time because at home everyone was arguing and getting on top of each other. I did not care, but now I do. I now see all the risks of running away.
“Meeting the Archbishop was a ‘wow’ moment. I was absolutely speechless. He was really, really nice. He really listened to what I had to say. I will never forget this moment.”
Safe in the City Birmingham runs a number of projects working with children and young people at risk on the streets.
For more information please visit


  1. Rees, G (2011) ‘Still Running 3, Findings from the third national survey of young runaways’

The Children's Society

'Still Running 3' is the third in a series of national surveys conducted by The Children’s Society into the issue of children running away. The three waves of the survey have been conducted at six-year intervals, in 1999, 2005 and 2011.

More than 7,300 children aged 14 to 16 were interviewed in a representative sample of mainstream schools across England.

Findings include:

  • One in five child runaways have begged, stolen or done “other things” to survive.
  • One in nine (11 per cent) was hurt or harmed on the last occasion they ran.
  • One in six (18 per cent) children said they had slept rough, or stayed with, someone they had just met.
  • Children with learning difficulties or a disability are twice as likely to run away.
  • A substantial number of children run away at younger ages – more than a third first run before the age of 13.
  • Young runaways, on average, are much less likely to feel positive about school, feel they are doing less well and hold lower future educational aspirations (such as going to university). 
  • Children not living with family, including those living in foster or residential care, are almost 50 per cent more likely to have run away at some point in their lives.

The Children’s Society wants to create a society where children and young people are valued, respected and happy. They are committed to helping vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including children in care and young runaways. They give a voice to disabled children, help young refugees to rebuild their lives and provide relief for young carers. Through our campaigns and research, they seek to influence policy and perceptions so that young people have a better chance in life.

A transcript of the Archbishop's concluding remarks at Safe in the City Birmingham:

First of all, a very warm word of thanks for the opportunity of being here with you this afternoon, for the opportunity of meeting some of the people most involved in this project and listening to the experiences that have shaped the hopes and aspirations that Safe in the City, and all that we’re discussing here this afternoon, represents. 

There are three things that have really struck me in looking at the ‘Still Running 3’ report, and they are three things which have always been true about the situation that we’re thinking about today.  The first is the exceptionally high level of risk that young people running away face.  That has been spelled out in various ways during the course of the afternoon and in this session now.  Young people who are already vulnerable are made more vulnerable as they run away.  And that’s something which we’re not fully aware of as a society, by any manner of means. 

Because, and here’s the second thing, the actual level of knowledge about the scale of the problem is very very low.  Not just the level of knowledge in the population at large, but the level of knowledge among a lot of statutory authorities and indeed in national government, so it seems.  There’s not a reliable basis of knowledge on which policy can go forward, in many people’s minds. 

The third thing is, the other side of this huge gap, this lack of knowledge, is that young people running away don’t know where to go for support and assistance, and sometimes don’t want to know. 

Those three aspects of this situation, this challenge, are together a recipe for forgotten people.  The Children’s Society has always been committed to the vision of no-one being forgotten, especially among children and young people.  That seems obvious, if you put it like that.  But the fact is that quite a lot of our society and quite a lot of our institutions are relatively happy with not knowing about people and brushing them aside - especially young people.  We may laugh in retrospect at Victorians bringing up children to be seen and not heard, but we live in a society where, quite often, children and young people are expected to be neither seen nor heard in our society.  As some of the responses to The Good Childhood Report made clear, we’re not really very fond of children and young people, and quite often we’d rather they weren’t around. 

The Children’s Society is there to affirm children and young people, not as the citizens of the future but as our neighbours, our valued loved neighbours, today.  And the vision behind this campaign about caring for the needs of runaways – that’s the vision that says ‘nobody should be forgotten’.  Children and young people need that assurance that they are seen and heard, that they are valued and loved.  And that means that all the initiatives that we’ve talked about already, being backed by all these people here and lots more besides - the aspiration for a proper joined-up national safety net. 

And I think the joining-up is crucial here.  There’s lots of good practice, and it has been wonderful to see some of it this afternoon.  It needs joining-up; it needs backing at the highest possible level.  It needs a bit of money from national government as well as elsewhere - there’s no way round that. 

But it needs the support of visionary, engaged, enthusiastic volunteers, and it needs people to make themselves a bit of a nuisance on the subject from time to time.  I hope she won’t mind, but one person I was talking to this afternoon did say that getting responses from a local school in one particular case was done only as a result of being a real nuisance.  And I applaud real nuisances.  I think that’s what makes a difference in so many settings.  Just keeping things at the top of people’s minds - not just leaving it to somebody else, or leaving it to statutory authorities, but being ready to stand up and be counted and to stick your neck out for the sake of children and young people. 

And I hope that all of us who are here today are willing to do a bit of that, as well as the routine lobbying and the routine support.  From time to time, just to be a bit of a nuisance on this subject - I won’t say ‘a bit of a bore on this subject’ because the welfare of children and young people is never boring, that’s one thing you can say with absolute conviction. 

So bearing in mind those three basic challenges and problems (vulnerability, and the two-fold communication gap), bearing in mind how very easy it is for vulnerable children and young people to feel they’re forgotten, bearing in mind the crucial need of intervening as early as we can and the crucial need not to leave it to somebody else or to leave it to government or to leave it to local authorities but for each of us to take responsibility - with all that in mind, I find it a real privilege to be present at this launch and to support it with all the enthusiasm I can muster. 

I’m very proud to be associated with The Children’s Society.  I was delighted that The Good Childhood Report a couple of years ago had the impact it did and is still having that impact.  Part of the impact is these conversations, nationally, around the nature of “a good childhood”.  And I’m very pleased that’s happening today.  I’m very proud that The Society has so taken forward the national discussion about these things, but for that to happen we have got to go on putting pressure on, consistently and hopefully, in our communities, our schools, police and social services, local and national government.  And, if I can put it this way, keeping the pressure on ourselves to remember the responsibility we have towards these precious, valued neighbours of ours who are children and young people, and whom we want to see feeling totally part of a society which really does nurture them and treasure them at every level. 

So thank you for the opportunity of being here.  I wish you well this evening in the conversation that is going to happen.  I’m afraid I’m on my way back to London shortly, but I’m very glad this is happening.  I wish you well with the campaign, and in The Children’s Society with everything that’s done locally and nationally.  Thank you very much indeed.

© Rowan Williams 2011

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