Street life

10 Dec 09
More support must be provided to children sleeping rough in Britain. Not only would this alleviate suffering, it would also reduce the long-term costs to the public purse, argues Emilie Smeaton
10 December 2009

by Emilie Smeaton

More support must be provided to children sleeping rough in Britain. Not only would this alleviate suffering, it would also reduce the long-term costs to the public purse, argues Emilie Smeaton

When discussing children and young people who end up on the streets, it is common for conversation to automatically turn to other countries. People think of the children on the train stations in India, the street boys hovering around the bus terminus in Nairobi or the many children on the streets in Brazil at risk from death squads.

However, children and young people are also living on the streets in the UK, with no support from family or statutory agencies established to care for their welfare. As research manager for the Railway Children charity, I spent two years with 103 children and young people living on the streets in the UK. I met Lana, who ran away from care at the age of 14 and was passed around for sex by groups of men; Rachel, who preferred living on the streets than at home; Liam, who was sexually abused by family members from the age of three; Kerry, whose father forced her to choose between her much-loved cat or her being hurt; and Charlie-Anne, who is desperate for help with her substance misuse and mental health problems.

These children and young people’s experiences of family life are fraught with difficulties. Many of their parents experienced substance misuse, domestic violence and mental health issues, leaving them unable to care for their children. Once on the streets, violence, substance misuse, mental health problems and sexual exploitation are rife. These children have very few options for legitimate support, often resorting to dangerous survival strategies and are at risk from others wishing to harm or exploit them.

At present, neither policy nor practice incorporate their needs. The majority of these children and families have not received the support and care they are entitled to from statutory agencies, including initiatives to access the hard to reach.

Many organisations are far from achieving the five outcomes outlined in the government’s Every Child Matters child welfare programme. The government’s 2008 Young  Runaway Action Plan, while welcome, relates only to children who have been reported missing and will not meet the needs of children who spend lengthy periods of time on the streets.

Many vulnerable children and young people have been affected by the violence, criminal behaviour and substance misuse of those around them in their home, local neighbourhood and on the streets.

With no preventative or responsive support available to safeguard vulnerable children and young people, violence and criminal behaviour became normalised and many victims became perpetrators as a means of survival. Many children expressed a desire to change their lives and to cease criminal activities and other behaviour but either did not know where to go for help or found that the support they needed was not available to them.

There are many costs of failing to meet these children and young people’s human and financial needs, and a whole range of them are incurred as a consequence of being at risk and marginalised. But interviews with them revealed that it was not possible to gain the information required to identify the full range of these costs.

Home Office figures outline the costs incurred of offending, and self-reporting of crime often matches official records. An attempt has been made to provide some indicative costs of the self-reported offending careers of children and young people who participated in the research. Therefore no attempt is made to put costs on any of the other (non-offending) consequences of children and young people’s behaviour and the figures given here are underestimates of total costs.

The value of this exercise lies in being able to provide some indication of the magnitude of the social costs that might result from not intervening effectively in the lives of children and young people who are living on the streets in the UK. This translates into substantial costs to victims, the health service and the ­criminal justice system.

Case studies reveal the costs of crime to average £500,000 for each child or young person under the age of 16 living on the streets. One young person accrued costs of more than £1m. Another cost £221,436 until the age of 14, received specialised intervention from a voluntary sector agency, costing just under £15,000, and ceased offending. Some children and young people do not accrue any costs as there is no offending behaviour. These are similar findings to those in the US.

Criminal activity can be reduced by identifying children and young people at risk of becoming detached from parents and carers and living on the streets at an early stage. Appropriate preventative and responsive measures can save costs and enable the child or young person to contribute in a positive manner as an adult. This would prevent their children from continuing the cycle of intergenerational ­involvement in criminal activities.

Responding to the needs of children and young people who live on the streets will require resources, and costs will be cited as a barrier to implementing interventions. However, it is important to consider the costs, financial and otherwise, if there is no investment.

Society will continue to pay for many of these children and young people, often into adulthood, as they become further entrenched in the criminal justice system, and require medical interventions in relation to, for example, mental health and substance misuse issues. 

Social workers, health visitors, school personnel and the voluntary sector can all play an important role in safeguarding vulnerable children but all require resources to do so. As Lord Laming
recommended, the number of frontline social workers with appropriate skills should be increased and their training improved. Social workers should be able to focus on building relationships and working with families before need becomes acute.

Health visitors should be given resources to effectively assess and support children in the home and play a vital role in their protection. School is often the only agency that children and young people are known to and once they stop attending, they become lost to social support agencies.

When a child or young person disengages with school, this should trigger an alert to appropriate agencies so they can intervene before the child or young person becomes untraceable or too entrenched in street life. If schools are to implement this role effectively, it is important that they are ­provided with the resources to do so.

Every child matters and these children and young people matter too.
Emilie Smeaton is national research and strategy manager at the Railway Children

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