Social worker Henny Heawood – who currently works for York council – has dealt with scores of young people who have gone missing during her 40-year career.
She said: “Kids in care have always run away. Perhaps there is a little bit of complacency within the profession that this is just what happens and what will always happen.”
According to Ms Heawood, 64, it was common for the local authority to lose children completely when she started as a social worker in Pontefract. Now, this occurs rarely, she said, and several local authorities are doing a good job at keeping track of children.
In her experience, there are usually a number of young people in care who go out at night and do not come home until very late, or at all, and who do not co-operate with the expectations of their placement, be that foster care or residential. However, they often reappear in a day or two and have not gone far.
Ms Heawood, a member of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “It is of course extremely worrying when they are missing as they could be in risky situations – taking drugs, getting involved in crime, or being pimped or becoming rent boys, that kind of thing.
“The problem is when teenagers become looked after they are liable to very challenging behaviour. We are getting young people who have problems already, and then we put boundaries on them, and they kick against it.”
But in general, it is not possible to keep young people in against their will and some freedom has to be given.
“We used to put them – children who constantly ran away – in secure accommodation. It basically meant they could be locked up, which is the only we could keep them in. But this practice does seem to have fallen off now,” she said.
Some children’s homes have runaway cultures – worsened by bringing together people with similar problems. Ms Heawood admitted that the police can “get fed up” if young people often run away simply to visit friends. “It is an absolute nightmare,” she said.