MPs will today launch a Parliamentary inquiry into the record numbers of children who go missing after being ‘farmed out’ to live in children’s homes miles away.
The All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults is concerned that there is growing evidence that a ‘sent away generation’ of vulnerable youngsters are in danger of falling prey to paedophiles and drugs gangs.
One thousand more individual children in out of area placements have gone missing from children’s homes since 2015, according to new Department for Education figures released today by Ann Coffey MP, who will chair the inquiry.
This has more than doubled from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018 and compares to a 31 per cent increase for children who go missing from children’s homes within their own borough.
This trend is confirmed in Ms Coffey’s own area of Stockport where 73 per cent of children reported missing from local children’s homes last year were placed out of area – 81 out of 110 missing children, according to statistics provided to the MP by Greater Manchester Police.
The inquiry will focus on the risks faced by children and young people who go missing from out of area placements and how their safety can be ensured.
Evidence suggests that being uprooted and placed a long way from family, friends and social workers leaves children isolated and is often a factor that causes them to run away.
They become ‘sitting ducks’ and are targeted and groomed for sexual and criminal exploitation, including being coerced into selling Class A drugs crack cocaine and heroin in ‘County Lines’ operations.
Ms Coffey has also written to all 43 police chief constables to ask for their observations about the link between out of area placements and children going missing and being targeted for sexual and criminal exploitation, especially ‘County Lines’.
In 2012, the APPG conducted a parliamentary inquiry into children missing from care and raised concerns about the number of children in cross-boundary placements.
The Government agreed to introduce measures in 2013 to reduce numbers. But despite this commitment, the situation has got worse and the number of ‘sent away’ children has increased to record levels. Latest figures show that*:
The APPG is today calling for evidence from individuals, organisations and children who have been sent faraway places.
Ann Coffey, the chair of the APPG and the inquiry, said:
“It shames us all that thousands of vulnerable children continue to be farmed out to live miles and miles away from home despite a government promise to clampdown on numbers.
“Isolated and alone without family, friends or local social workers to help protect them, they become sitting ducks for those who wish to prey on them. They are targeted by paedophiles and drugs gangs and can become trapped in a brutal world.
“The children’s homes system is broken. It is catastrophically failing children and young people and is instead working in the interest of private providers.
“Most children’s homes are bunched into three regions of the country with 25 per cent in the North West alone. Local authorities have their hands tied with little choice about where children should be placed because of the uneven distribution of children’s homes.
“This is a shocking state of affairs.”
Sam Royston, Director and Policy and Research at The Children’s Society, said:
“Children should only be placed away from their home area if it is in their best interests, but too often this is happening simply because local placements are unavailable.
“We are deeply concerned that the number of children being placed out of their home area rises year on year and that many of them go missing repeatedly. Going missing is an indicator of risk and a cry for help from children.
“By supporting this APPG inquiry we hope we can help identify viable, long-term solutions that will prevent an already vulnerable group of young people from being put at increased risk of harm through placements that should be keeping them safe.”
If you would like to contribute to the inquiry, the evidence is now being gathered until April 26th. More information is available here.
The number of children being sent to live in children’s homes outside their own borough has soared despite a government pledge to clampdown on distant placements.
Ann Coffey, the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children and Adults, said the latest figures were ‘bitterly disappointing’ coming four years after the government said it would reduce the numbers.
A high proportion of children placed miles away from their home area go missing and are at risk of harm.
According to Parliamentary answers obtained by Ms Coffey from the Department for Education, there was a 56 per cent increase nationally in children placed in children’s homes out of their borough from 2,250 in March 31, 2012 to 3,510 in March 31, 2016.
The total number of looked after children increased from 67,050 in March 2012 to 70,440 in March 2016. During the same period the number of children placed in children’s homes increased from 4,890 to 5,940.
Ann Coffey MP has called for the controversial new police system of recording missing children to be abolished after a damning report from HMIC published today. (Wednesday)
Ms Coffey, the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, welcomed the HMIC report on the police response to missing and absent children.
She said: “It is shocking that there are such unacceptable inconsistencies between and within police forces in their approach to missing children. Too many children are being left at risk. Children deserve the same protection wherever they live.”
The HMIC report criticised the new ‘absent’ and ‘missing’ categories introduced by the police in 2013, under which only people reported missing get an immediate police response. It found ‘serious inconsistencies in the way that forces use the ‘missing’ and ‘absent’ categories are leaving some children at risk of serious harm’.
The HMIC report recommended a review of the current approach to risk assessments of children who go missing with a particular focus on the categorisation of absent and missing children and on children who are repeatedly missing.
But Ms Coffey said that it was now time to go one step further and to scrap the system.
“HMIC found that children categorised as ‘absent’ received far less attention from the police, often not being looked for where circumstances may have escalated, or having any enquiries made as to why they left home.
“HMIC also found examples of missing children being incorrectly categorised as ‘absent’, meaning that little action was taken to find and safeguard those potentially vulnerable children. There could be various reasons why this was happening, however on some occasions it was suspected that it was being used as a shortcut to manage demand”.
Ms Coffey raised concerns about the new absent category in her report published in 2014 ‘Real Voices – Child Sexual Exploitation Greater Manchester’.
She said: “I fear that the new system is open to error and that children who are regularly classed as ‘absent’ instead of ‘missing’ could be sexually or criminally exploited on a regular basis.
“There would be no police response because they are not recorded as missing. This means exploited young people can fall off the radar.
“I have also been concerned that the new absent category appears to be a way of screening out or camouflaging missing from home episodes. It seems the new police categories have not strengthened safeguarding and are leaving too many children exposed to risk.”
Ms Coffey also welcomed the idea of a new national data base to be used by all police forces to record all children missing at any one time to ensure a more consistent approach.
She said: “It is completely unacceptable that inconsistencies between and within police forces are leaving many missing children at risk.”
She pointed out that the annual Peel Report on the Greater Manchester Police by HMIC in February had said that the force responds well to missing and absent.
“But GMP cannot safeguard children in isolation and make risk assessments in isolation. This why they need information from parents and children’s services, particularly in the case of looked after children placed in the area by other local authorities. This would enable them to make a proper assessment of a missing child’s risk of coming to harm. This is why a national data base would be helpful”
Ms Coffey also welcomed the HMIC recommendations for making sure local authorities conduct return interviews on missing children.
“The return interviews should be used as part of a wider intelligence system to identify risks to children in that area and trends locally,” she said.
She also welcomed HMIC proposals to ensure that all local authorities are complying with rules to help safeguard children who are sent to live in children’s homes miles away from their home areas. These children often runaway and go missing.
Ms Coffey prioritised talking to children in her Real voices report and she welcomed the HMIC children’s voices report which gave children and young peoples’ perspective on the police role in safeguarding.
”It is great to see children’s voices being included in the report. The important thing now is how the experience of these children will drive forward the cultural and operation changes needed in police forces so that children are able to feel and believe that the police are there for them.”