“Outside, they are in danger”… Should we worry about the large number of children running away?

It is a reality that must question, question, perhaps even worry. In France, more than 40,000 reports of minors running away were recorded in 2022 by the police and gendarmerie. A very high figure, which should alert us to the questions of young people and which has caught the attention of the gendarmes and police, more and more often mobilized to find children or adolescents who have fled the home without warning. In Ille-et-Vilaine, the gendarmerie undertook more than 500 search operations in 2022 to find minors. The military had never been confronted with such a phenomenon. “Each operation requires a lot of commitment and significant resources from us, says Colonel Sébastien Jaudon, head of the Ille-et-Vilaine gendarmes. It’s very time-consuming because we have to take each case seriously. Runaway minors may not realize it, but they are in danger. Is the phenomenon noticeable elsewhere? Why do children decide to leave their homes? How to prevent them from starting again? 20 minutes asked the question.

Contacted, the national gendarmerie assures that it has “not observed a significant increase in the number of runaways at the national level between 2021 and 2022”. The phenomenon would therefore be local. Would the children and adolescents of Ille-et-Vilaine be quicker to leave home? “In any case, it can raise questions about the state of our youth,” worries Colonel Jaudon. The reason is probably more pragmatic. For several years, the gendarmerie has sent “strict directives” to its territorial levels, inviting the brigades to systematize the opening of an investigation in the event of a worrying disappearance. “The number of investigations into this type of incident has considerably increased at the national level and the department of Ille-et-Vilaine has indeed made a special effort to bring the case to justice”, assures the national gendarmerie.

If the phenomenon does not increase, it remains very present. Last year, 42,500 reports of runaways were recorded in France, more than a hundred per day on average. A stable figure but which remains “very important” for child protection associations. Especially since the latter see a clear rejuvenation of children leaving home.

“We regularly have situations with children aged 12 or 13, or even younger,” says Julien Landureau.

The advocacy officer of the children’s rights foundation considers the situation “worrying” because it puts minors in a delicate situation. “The fugue is always a time when children are in danger, even when it is short,” he adds. When we are in a situation of wandering, we are inevitably the prey of bad encounters. Running away should be taken very seriously. »

Why do the children leave?

His association was commissioned to manage the 116,000 number. Active throughout Europe, this 24/7 hotline was launched in 2007 to help families of missing children. Last year, she opened 1,300 cases of disappearances of minors, trying to help parents faced with the still very distressing departure of their child. “We are not looking for children, but our teams are there to listen, to advise”. An act that is very complicated to analyze for those around the runaway. Why are these children leaving? Difficult to summarize even if several situations emerge. We sometimes speak of an act of rebellion, the influence of a bad encounter or the translation of a malaise such as in harassment phenomena. Some also try to escape placement with a relative or in a home during a separation or simply want to “test” the degree of attachment that adults have for them. It also happens, even if it is fortunately rarer, that children flee the home to escape violence, danger or a toxic climate. “We notice that there are often early signs, sudden behavioral changes, but this is not always the case,” says Julien Landureau.

Beyond the age of the runaways, it is also their fate that worries the Children’s Rights Foundation, particularly with regard to young women. Because more and more often, leaving the house can have a close link with prostitution. “The phenomenon is growing, especially in the case of repeated runaways,” assures Julien Landureau. Without money, some young women sometimes fall prey to ill-intentioned men who push them into monetizing their bodies. “Not on the sidewalk but via online classifieds or on social networks”, explains the foundation.

Take the time to understand and listen

In 2022, the state-commissioned report on child prostitution revealed this: “Runaways seem to be a privileged recourse for minors to emerge from the passivity into which previous traumatic events have plunged them. These escapes expose them to new risks, leading to repeated endangerments. “To protect children, the authors of the report recommend “to systematize a protocol for the return of runaways with, in particular, systematic medico-psychological evaluation”. This advice is shared by the police and child protection associations, which try to collect runaways in a healthy and peaceful environment. “It is useless to rush, to get angry. Parents must take the time to understand, to listen, without feeling guilty and getting angry. Running away is often the expression of a malaise. You have to analyze it first,” says Julien Landureau. With the hope of avoiding recurrence.

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