Children placed out of borough are magnets for child abusers and county lines gangs
Inquiry warns of isolation of children in care being placed miles away from home
Published on 18th September 2019
Thousands of children in care are being put at risk by being moved to children’s homes up to 100 miles from where they live, a parliamentary inquiry has warned.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults into children missing from out of area placements said this "sent away generation" become isolated from friends, family and social workers become magnets for paedophiles and ‘County Lines’ gangs.
Ms Coffey, chair of the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: "It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for County Lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away. It must stop.
"Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them," she added.
More than 70 per cent of the 41 police forces that responded to the inquiry said that placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation often resulting in them being coerced into going missing.
Local authorities may also be inadvertently opening up new ‘County Lines’, the inquiry heard, because relocating children who have been groomed to sell heroin and crack cocaine, can create opportunities for criminals to expand their reach into rural, quieter parts of the country.
Record numbers of out or area children are repeatedly going missing because they are so unhappy. They run back home, often hitching lifts in remote areas, or they are enticed to run away by people seeking to exploit them. One girl told the inquiry she had run away 100 times since being moved out of county.
The government has pledged to reduce the number of children being placed out of borough and some local authorities are working innovatively to try and reduce the numbers of children placed miles from home. However, despite this, the numbers have still soared since the APPG first raised concerns in 2012.
- 64 per cent of all children living in children’s homes now live out of area, up from 46 per cent in 2012.
- Of the 443 children in children’s homes in Greater Manchester, 64 per cent were placed out of area in 2018, a rise of 44 per cent since 2015 from 196 to 283.
- The number of children reported missing from out of area placements has more than doubled since 2015, from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018, compared with a 31% increase for those missing from in area placements.
- The number of children reported missing from out of area placements in Greater Manchester, has also doubled since 2015 from 70 in 2015 rising to 139 in 2018, compared with a 67 per cent rise for those missing from in area placements.
- Half of all missing episodes (34.060 out of 70,250 nationally) are from children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation.
Ms Coffey, who is the Member of Parliament for Stockport, and who worked with children and families as a senior social worker prior to being elected, said we have now reached ‘crisis point’.
The report recommends that the Department for Education publishes an Emergency Action Plan to slash the numbers of out of area placements, recognising that they do not keep children safe.
The report also highlights an increase in the number of older children, over 16 , being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation, which Ms Coffey describes as a “shady twilight world". Eighty per cent of the 40 police forces who gave evidence to the inquiry raised concerns about the rising numbers of these establishments, which are ‘off the radar’ because, unlike children’s homes they are not regulated or inspected.
There are more than 5,000 children in care in England living in unregulated semi-independent accommodation, up 70 per cent from 2,900 ten years ago. The report urges these establishments to be regulated and inspected.
Police raised concerns to the inquiry about unregulated 16 plus accommodation including:
- Children being isolated and targeted for child sexual exploitation or to run drugs.
- Very high numbers repeatedly running away, and police not aware of the homes until there is a missing incident.
- A child bailed for murder was placed in the same semi-independent home as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs across county lines.
- A girl who had been sexually exploited was housed with a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation.
- One young person was stabbed another after social services knowingly placed two opposing gang members in the same unregistered home.
- Children are often housed alongside adult criminals or adults with addiction issues.
- The homes are poorly managed with untrained staff situated in risky areas, in cheap locations.
- ‘Pop up’ children’s homes for young people aged 16 plus are emerging in areas of high deprivation because there is no regulation and housing is much cheaper, heightening the risk of the most vulnerable children of being exploited.
The inquiry concluded that out of area placements are not made with the best interests of the child in mind but to suit the needs of the market. Furthermore, children and young people are being placed out of area into children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation due to a lack of suitable provision and the uneven distribution of homes across the country. Three quarters of all children’s homes are now private and are concentrated in three areas: the North West, West Midlands and South East.
Many giving evidence to the inquiry slammed the system as ‘broken’ because it is not working for children and that market forces were dictating where provision is available.
The report also highlights a failure of professionals to recognise the trauma and emotional impact that being sent away out of borough can have on young people who have already suffered neglect and abuse. Research on identify suggests children are damaged by being moved away and attachments broken.
The inquiry recommends the Department for Education and the Home Office develops a cross-departmental strategy on tackling Child Criminal Exploitation and County lines, specifically focusing on the risks to looked after children placed out of area. Local authorities should also be required to publish yearly sufficiency reports stipulating the number of in and out of area placements and cost of provision.
Any decision to place a child out of area should be supported by evidence to demonstrate that the decision is for the child’s safety and there should be a new requirement on children’s services to demonstrate that children and young people have been consulted in advance.
Anne Coffey said: “By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children.
“Our inquiry has shone a light into the shady twilight world of unregulated accommodation for children aged 16 and over, who become magnets for paedophiles and County Lines drugs gangs. This accommodation must be regulated and inspected.”
The inquiry is supported by the Children’s Society. Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society said: “Our inquiry heard some truly shocking examples of the trauma and risk experienced by children placed out of area. It should be a wakeup call for urgent action at both the national and local level. These children are some of the most vulnerable in society, it is vital their needs are put at the centre of all decisions about their placement. No looked after child should be placed simply because that is where a bed is free, instead of that is where the child is most likely to receive the care, support and sense of belonging they deserve.
“We are calling on the government to put in place an action plan and give councils more funding to ensure that there is a sufficient number of good quality, regulated and inspected care placements where children need them. Only then can we stop this epidemic of children being sent away, left feeling isolated and exposed to high risk.”
Cllr Teresa Heritage, Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The welfare of the children they care for is of the utmost importance to councils. Placing children outside of their home area is always a decision they take seriously and may be needed to give them a new beginning away from abuse or neglect; for their own safety; to break gang affiliation, or to place them near other family members or to access specialist services.
“However, increasing numbers of older children are coming into care. As they are more likely to need accommodation in children’s homes, this is placing significant pressure on places. Most children’s homes are now also privately owned and concentrated in areas where accommodation is cheapest. Together, this can mean that councils are forced to place children out of area or in placements that are not best suited to a child’s needs.
“Funding pressures alongside soaring demand for care are preventing councils from investing in the accommodation and support options at the level they need in order to provide the best and most appropriate help for all children and young people.
“It is vital that the government works with councils to understand these pressures and provides appropriate funding to ensure the right homes are available for all children, whatever their needs," she added.
Rachel Dickinson, presidnt of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said:“Finding the right placement for children in care and keeping them safe is a priority for all local authorities. Whilst placing children close to their community, family and friends is preferable there are good reasons why a child might be placed further away including where there are concerns about their safety or their needs can’t be met locally. The child’s voice is critical but choosing the right placement can, at times, conflict with their wishes. As Sir Martin Narey recognises in his review of residential care ‘the right placement for a child is more important than location.’
“Any increase in the number of out of area placements must be viewed in the context of a 24% increase in the number of children in our care over the past decade, a shortage of foster carers and placements in residential children’s homes, as well as a mismatch between the location of these placements and need. That local authority budgets have been halved since 2010 but need has not cannot be overlooked either as this is impacting on our ability to develop suitable, local options for children and young people. ADCS strongly cautions against the view that all young people in out of area placements or unregulated provision are badly placed or left without support, indeed there are some excellent providers of services and the report does not recognise the important work they do.
“Safeguarding is everyone’s business and local authorities, the police, health services and schools, who share our legal safeguarding duty, and the community must work together to keep children safe, particularly if a child is new to the area. Any increase in children going missing is a concern for local authorities. This can often be a symptom of wider problems in a child’s life and is not restricted to children in care. However, we must pay special attention to this cohort, given local authorities’ particular responsibility for these children and their additional vulnerability. This is a complex area of policy and practice and it is important that we all work together to keep children and young people safe rather than pointing fingers at one another.
“The suggestion in this report that local authorities are acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’, is wholly inappropriate and we are in dialogue with the report authors directly," she concluded.
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