17 Jun 2012

MPs and Peers call for urgent investigation into children's homes

Children who go missing from care are being systematically failed and placed in great danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them, according to a parliamentary inquiry report published today.

The report, by two influential All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs), calls for an independent investigation into children's homes in England and asserts that the system of residential care is 'not fit for purpose' for children who go missing.

The findings come in the wake of horrific cases of sexual exploitation, trafficking and other child abuse exposed in Rochdale and other parts of the country. The leader of Rochdale council has said that children should no longer be sent to care homes in his borough because their safety is not being guaranteed.

Today's report by the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and the APPG for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, reveals that children in care are three times more likely to run away than children who live at home, often placing themselves in great danger of being physically or sexually abused or exploited.

Yet society – including many professionals – so often sees them as 'troublesome', a 'nuisance' and 'drain on resources' - rather than victims.

Recommendations

The main recommendations are: 

  • An independent investigation into children’s homes in England, which are failing to manage and protect children who run away or go missing. This is despite spending £1 billion a year(i) on just under 5,000 children(ii) cared for in children’s homes, averaging £200,000 a child.
  • A 'scorecard' should be introduced to measure a local authority’s performance in protecting vulnerable children who go missing from care.
  • Urgent action on 'out of borough placements', where children are sent to live hundreds of miles from home. Half of all children in children’s homes (46 percent) live outside their own local authority(iii), despite evidence that this is often a major factor in causing them to run away. One local authority placed every single child in its care outside its boundary.
  • Barriers, which stop the police from being informed of the names and addresses of children’s homes in their areas, must be overcome. Under the current system a sexual predator could be sitting in a car outside a children’s home, which the police do not know exists.
  • A completely new system of reporting incidents of children running from care, which combines data from both the police and local authorities. The discrepancy in data is startling, with estimated police figures for last year showing that there were 10,000 children going missing from care(iv) - but the Department for Education only recording 930 children missing(v).
  • Ofsted should not be allowed to give a 'good' inspection report to a home where there have been hundreds of missing incidents. More weighting should be given to the management of missing incidents in Ofsted’s inspections.

The inquiry also highlights a lack of training for professionals, an over-reliance on agency workers and poor quality placements in children’s homes. One practitioner told the inquiry: 'You can have someone looking after a young person, who the day before, their experience may have been working at a deli counter in ASDA'.

'There is a scandal going on in England involving children missing from care'

Ann Coffey MP, Chair of the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: 'There is a scandal going on in England involving children missing from care - and until recent cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and other places put the spotlight on this issue – it was pretty much going unnoticed.

'This inquiry has revealed the widespread concern that what we have in place at the moment falls dramatically short of what is needed to protect some of society’s most vulnerable children. We know that dangerous predators are exploiting large gaps in the system and targeting children.

'Our inquiry has demonstrated how the system is far from fit for purpose and needs an urgent rethink to address these failings.'

Overview of children in care, APPGs

There are 65,520 children in local authority care in England(vi). Children’s homes are often seen by social workers and other professionals as a 'last resort' from troubled young people with several placements behind them. Children in children’s homes are generally older, vulnerable and have more complex needs.

The two APPGs joined forces to launch an inquiry – supported by The Children’s Society and The Who Cares? Trust - into the care and support provided for the thousands of children who run away or go missing from care every year. This included four oral evidence sessions, including one focusing on child trafficking and other issues around runaways.

The need to have 'a safety net in place' for young people

Chief Executive of The Children's Society, Matthew Reed said: 'It is unacceptable that some of this country’s most vulnerable children are being completely let down by the very systems that should be there to protect them from these shocking crimes.

'Our own research shows that a quarter of the 100,000 children who run away from care or home each year are at serious risk of harm(vii). It is critical that all areas of the country have a safety net in place, so that every time a child goes missing from care they are protected from sexual exploitation, trafficking and other shocking crimes.'

The Earl of Listowel, Vice Chair of the APPG for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, said: 'The inquiry recognises that there are examples of excellent children's homes and that for some children this is sometimes the most appropriate option. But the great variability of standards and the generally very low level of qualifications of staff need urgent remedy.

'As the recent Rochdale case has clearly demonstrated, it is essential that no stone is left unturned when it comes to the care and protection of some of this country’s most vulnerable children.'

Natasha Finlayson, Chief Executive of The Who Cares? Trust, said: 'It is essential that the government takes these recommendations on board. Children in the care system in England are some of the most vulnerable children. They need, and deserve, proper support and care and to be protected from exploitation and harm.'

Martin Houghton-Brown, Chief Executive of Missing People, said: 'This inquiry has shone a light on some serious shortcomings of a system that is supposed to protect children in care. We now know, for example, that far too many children are sent to be cared for miles away from their homes. We need to do so much more to support vulnerable children who run away from care.'

The inquiry heard evidence from local authorities, service providers, specialist organisations, police, children and young people, Minister for Children and Families Tim Loughton MP and Home Office Minister Lynne Featherstone MP. Panellists included Alex Cunningham MP, Paul Goggins MP, Dan Rogerson MP and Craig Whittaker MP.

Ends

Related content

Media enquiries

For more information, please call Paul Martin in The Children’s Society media team on 020 7841 4422, 07810487988 or email paul.martin@childrenssociety.org.uk. For out-of-hours enquiries please call 07810 796 508.

For Joy Copley, Parliamentary Researcher to Ann Coffey MP, please call 07786 357145.

Notes to editors

The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults works to raise awareness in Parliament of issues connected to children and adults who go missing or run away. You can find more information about the APPG and the inquiry into children who go missing or run away from care on The Children's Society website.

More than 100,000 children and young people run away each year – that is one every five minutes. A quarter of them, the equivalent of 70 each day, are forced out of their homes by their parents or carers.

The Children’s Society wants to create a society where children and young people are valued, respected and happy. We are committed to helping vulnerable and disadvantaged young people, including children in care and young runaways. We give a voice to disabled children, help young refugees to rebuild their lives and provide relief for young carers. Through our campaigns and research, we seek to influence policy and perceptions so that young people have a better chance in life. For more information visit our Make Runaways Safe campaign.

Missing People is an independent charity, which offers a lifeline when someone disappears. You can call or text 116 000 for advice, support and options if you, or someone you love, goes missing or runs away - it’s free, 24 hours and confidential.

The Who Cares? Trust is a UK-wide charity that works to improve the lives of children and young people in care. We do this by using our expertise and influence with government policy-makers, informing, empowering and supporting children and young people in care, through our magazines and other publications and through projects and campaigns which directly benefit them and producing information and support materials for foster carers and professionals as a means to improving the lives of children in care.

Footnotes

i. House of Commons Written Answer 77679, 3rd November 2011, Catherine McKinnell MP. (Return to text.)

ii. Department for Education (2012), Children’s Homes in England Data Pack. (Return to text.)

iii. House of Commons Library (2012), Children in Care in England: Statistics. Go to page 7. (Return to text.)

iv. UK Missing Person’s Bureau, Children Missing From care, NPIA p.3. (Return to text.)

v. Department for Education, Children Looked After who went missing from care during the year ending 31st March 2011. London: HM Government. It is important to note that the published figures relate to how many individual children went missing, not the number of times that each child went missing, during the year. (Return to text.)

vi. Department for Education (2012), Children’s Homes in England Data Pack. (Return to text.)

vii. The Children’s Society (2012), Still Running 3 report. (Return to text.)