3 children a day become runaways

The annual report from Child Focus, the agency for Belgium’s missing and sexually exploited children, says on average three children a day ran away from home last year.  2021 saw a surge in numbers compared to the previous year.  It’s being linked to the ending of restrictions connected to the pandemic.

In 2018 the organisation opened 1,188 dossiers on missing children.  In 867 cases the dossiers dealt with runaways.  In most cases the children soon surface.  57% are found within the week, 91% within the month.

The number of runaways is up a fifth on the year.  Numbers were down in 2020 due to lockdowns when children were stuck at home or in institutions. Figures surged again as restrictions were eased.

222 cases of missing children were labelled as particularly disturbing.  These cases involve children under 13 or who are mentally or physically challenged, require medicines or are in danger.

139 cases involved suspected international parent abductions.  The figure is down for a second year in a row, probably as a result of the pandemic and restrictions on travel.

98 cases involved the disappearance on unaccompanied minors, who are far harder to find: “These are vulnerable youngsters, often with a traumatic track record, with uncertain residency rights and without families, who often have a great need for psychological and practical support.  They risk becoming the victims of people-traffickers and various forms of sexual exploitation” says the report.

Child Focus also deals with cases of sexual exploitation of children.  Cases soared in 2020 and remained at the same level nearly topping 2,500 dossiers in 2021. Cases were up by half in comparison with 2019.

Most dossiers involve the production of child pornography – 2,147 cases in all.

Arachnid, a tool used to search for images of sexual exploitation online, analysed 55,000 images.  34,266 were judged to be images of the sexual exploitation of children.

There were 57 cases of child prostitution and 43 cases of grooming.

Child Focus CEO Heidi De Pauw says the pandemic seriously undermined youngsters’ mental health.

Staff shortages and long waiting lists mean youth agencies are struggling to provide help to children in need.

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