RUNAWAY children are the forgotten members of our society, according to a South Cheshire charity.
Railway Children celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2005 and is planning a bumper year working with and raising awareness of the hundreds of thousands of children it finds living on the streets in the UK and abroad.
The charity was founded in 1995 by Railtrack's former controller of safety policy, David Maidment.
The roots of the trust date back to a life-changing experience David had in 1989 while on business in Delhi, when he saw a homeless seven-year-old girl beat herself with a whip to exact sympathy for handouts.
The event left a permanent impression on him, leading him to join Amnesty International.
In 1993, he volunteered to be its representative at the Consortium for Street Children, a conference of 30 organisations.
Using his expertise as a safety inspector, David highlighted the global factors that lead to children becoming homeless, whether through running away or being abandoned.
Through this assessment, he identified a common trend for street children all over the world - the longer they were left to their own devices, the more risk there was of them turning to theft and prostitution.
He realised the problem had only one viable solution - get to the children early and address whatever problem had lead to the child becoming homeless.
As he had seen in India through his work for Railtrack, David knew railway stations were where many newly homeless children congregated and were therefore the perfect targets for early prevention.
Two years later, Railway Children was born.
Since then the charity, based at Scope House on Weston Road, Crewe, has gone from strength to strength. In 2004, it was endorsed by Virgin Trains and the Independent on Sunday among others.
The majority of its work is done in India and the UK but, with pilot schemes being set up in countries like Russia, Kenya and Mexico, it hopes to reach out to more and more children and reinforce the argument that child homelessness is a global problem requiring a global solution.
Chief executive Terina Keene said: 'We work as a development agency working in partnership with projects on the ground. Obviously, a street child in India looks very different to a runaway in UK and there are definite differences in strategy.
'But overall, we promote the universal message that alleviating child poverty requires focus on the children, positive relationships between all agencies dealing with them and the capacity to keep building on resources.
'In India, where there are something like 10 million street children, this ethos is put into practice in ways a lot closer to the original vision of the charity than in the UK.
'There are still literally thousands of homeless children living in and around railway stations in big cities like Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta and we work to fund and co-ordinate projects which aim to integrate these youngsters back into society.
'In the UK, we are working with runaway children more generally because there is not the same visible issue.'
Terina, who lives on Crewe Road in Sandbach, believes there needs to be a complete overhaul in the way vulnerable children are dealt with in this country.
She said: 'The problem is there are no statutory provisions for runaway children in this country. We have to try to address this and will be recruiting a dedicated UK performance officer next year to push for fundamental change.
'There are too many gaps children can fall though. Because society is more fluid nowadays, many children do not have the fallback of an extended family when problems start at home.
'When they run it is because there is a genuine problem - we are not talking about kids who want to see the big city lights.'
The ultimate solution, says Terina, is not in expensive orphanage-style refuges or in tougher policing measures but in a concerted effort by everyone involved to put right the wrongs in the lost children's lives and help them re-establish family ties.
Next year already looks bright for the charity. After being invited to apply for a £1m grant over four years by the Sports Relief fund, it is eagerly anticipating confirmation in the spring.
Terina added: 'This money is specifically for our Indian projects. If we get it, we will be able to roll out another 25 projects in the next four years and reach out to an estimated 12,000 children.
'But at home too it will be an exciting year. The appointment of the programme officer is a big step for us and we will also be taking on two extra full-time staff when we move to bigger offices in Scope House.
'The Three Peaks challenge in June is already fully booked and we hope to beat last year's total raised of £100,000.'