ALMOST half of Scotland’s young runaways are at risk of being sexually exploited and most of them are unaware of the risks they face, children’s charity Barnardo’s has warned.
The charity said 44 per cent of children and young people who went missing from their homes on a regular basis were being supported by its specialist sexual exploitation services.
Barnardo’s is now working alongside local authorities and police forces to help young runaways reduce their risk-taking behaviour and help them find solutions for them going missing from home.
One of the youngsters who has been helped is Alex, now 16, who regularly ran away from her Aberdeen home after arguing and fighting with her mother. By the age of 13 she had gone missing more than a dozen times, staying with friends or walking the streets.
She was drinking half a litre of vodka a day and taking drugs. It was not long before she found herself living with a group of older people, including men who sometimes preyed on her vulnerability.
Alex said: “I learned to be pretty good at looking after myself, I had to. No-one else did. I never really felt scared, but looking back I can see the risk I was putting myself at.”
The youngster’s mother often rang the police when her daughter went missing and it was back in 2009 when Grampian Police referred her case to Barnardo’s, which runs a service called Connect in Aberdeen.
When her case worker Mel first met Alex, she was covered in bruises, where her mother and some of her siblings had hit her. She was living with a group of travelling people in an overcrowded house.
Alex, whose father died when she was aged just five, said: “Home was never a happy place for me. I was the youngest of four and my mum and I just did not get on. We fought all the time.
“By the time I started secondary school it was really bad. We screamed at each other and could not be together. She kept telling me to go away.
“One day I said to her ‘If you really want me to go pack my bags and I will’, she then asked my brother to get her big black bag and she filled it with my stuff and threw it out the back. This just showed me she did not want me or love me.
“I’d gone missing a couple of times before that when I just wandered the streets and visited pals, but after that day I would go away lots, for days on at times. I would not tell mum where I was, she never asked.”
Living such a chaotic lifestyle meant Alex rarely went to school. Police became more involved in her life as she continued to miss school and go missing from home. It was a police officer who specialises in looking after runaway children who referred Alex to Barnardo’s.
Mel, a support worker from the charity Connect, managed to convince Alex to meet up with her in a local cafe.
Alex is now one of 11 youngsters Mel works with across Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.
The Scotsman’s Christmas Appeal is supporting Barnardo’s Scotland, which strives to give vulnerable children and young people a better future.
It has 122 projects across Scotland and has helped more than 14,500 youngsters.