Newsmaker: Talk on the child side - Bob Reitemeier Chief executive, the Children's Society

Indira Das-Gupta

Campaigning to improve conditions for the nation's young runaways.

There is only one refuge bed for every 10,000 runaway children under 16 in the UK - a statistic to shock even the hardest cynic, and one that the Children's Society has highlighted to maximum effect in its recent Safe and Sound campaign.

"People keep asking me if it's true because they can't believe it," says Bob Reitemeier, the charity's chief executive. "Sadly, it is."

The campaign is based on the results of a questionnaire that was completed by 11,000 schoolchildren around the country. A similar survey in 1999 indicated that 100,000 children run away from home every year. Five years on, that figure hasn't changed.

Reitemeier hopes that the latest campaign will increase pressure on the Government to stump up the estimated £7.5m-£10m it would cost each year to run a national network of 10 refuges in strategic locations across England.

"I believe it's achievable," he says. "The Children's Society has been working on this for two decades, and sometimes it has felt like we've been banging our heads against a brick wall. But I really believe we are now the closest we have ever been to achieving our goal."

If the goal is achieved, Reitemeier will not be resting on his laurels.

He is already planning the charity's next big initiative, which is to lead a cross-sector debate about childhood.

"We want to generate a discussion about what actually constitutes a good childhood today," he explains. "The rate of change in children's lives is very fast; children are exposed to all sorts of things that even people in their 20s now didn't experience when they were growing up."

Reitemeier believes that, as well as providing services for children who run away, the charity should look at prevention too.

He says: "You can sum up why children run away from home in two words - relationship breakdown. That is normally at the heart of it. There is some kind of change in the family structure that the child feels unable to put up with.

"We need to increase awareness about where children can go to talk about these issues, such as national helplines, and work with parents and teachers so children can talk things through before they hit the point where they decide to run away."

Under Reitemeier, the Children's Society has achieved financial stability and become more focused. It has also been at the forefront of a number of developments that have had an impact on the sector as a whole.

In August, the charity won an appeal in the High Court that enabled it to reclaim VAT on fundraising - a ruling that will reap benefits for the entire sector. It also set up a limited company, CharITyshare, with the NSPCC to enable the two charities to share IT services - another first for the sector.

"We should be pleased with CharITyshare," he says. "It has saved us money, which means we have more to spend on services. There are not enough collaborations or even mergers in the sector. But bigger is not always better - some of the largest charities seem the slowest to respond to the outside world."

Reitemeier's record for forward thinking is impressive, but he still values the charity's Christian roots. "Our Christian basis is very important," he says. "But we are not selective; any faith is about reaching out. There's an idea that our supporters are all older churchgoers, but that's a myth."

Whatever the future holds for the Children's Society, it's a safe bet that Reitemeier will continue to push the boundaries. "I don't think we should be afraid of offending people by going too far," he says. "I think sometimes we don't go far enough."

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