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.
Ms Coffey highlighted her concerns about the numbers of children placed in Greater Manchester children’s homes from miles away in a report published this year into child sexual exploitation in Greater Manchester.
The report ‘Real Voices – Are they being heard?’ revealed that there were 400 children placed in children’s homes in Greater Manchester of which half were placed outside their home authority.
Two hundred were placed in children’s homes by the ten Greater Manchester authorities outside their home authority and a quarter (100) were placed outside the GM area altogether.
The latest Parliamentary answers from the Department for Education also reveal that the number of incidents of children going missing from children’s homes has risen from 28,570 in 2015 to 43,000 in England.
Ms Coffey’s ‘Real voices’ report revealed that half of missing incidents in Greater Manchester were generated by looked after children. The report said that 4,376 individual children under 18 in Greater Manchester went missing between January and November 14, 2016 generating 16,099 reports. Of those 743 were children looked after by the local authority, generating 7,689 reports – almost half of all incidents.
Ms Coffey said: “These latest figures from the Department for Education are bitterly disappointing because the government pledged to reduce out of borough placements four years ago.
“All the evidence shows that vulnerable children sent to live in placements outside their own local authority boundaries are at high risk of going missing and coming to harm.
“We know there are strong proven links between going missing and child sexual exploitation. The National Crime Agency also reported that children groomed to sell drugs in ‘County Lines’ operations are often listed as missing.
“There are additional difficulties in keeping children safe when they are placed away from their local area. It is more challenging to support children with complicated needs who may have repeated missing episodes.
“GMP continue to report concerns that very vulnerable children at high risk have been placed within the GMP area without their knowledge. All too often the police only become aware of such children when they are reported missing or following them suffering serious harm.
“We need further research to explore links between the increase in the number of children being placed many miles from home and the rise in missing incidents.
“We need to know urgently why there are so many missing episodes from children’s homes and what part out of borough placements play?”
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children inquiry into children missing from care in 2012, chaired by Ms Coffey, called for a reduction in the number of out of borough placements and revealed that children placed a long way from home were at great risk of going missing.
The report said that on average 50 per cent of missing looked after children are children who go missing from placements outside the boundaries of their local authority.
In response to this evidence the government proposed a fundamental overall of children’s residential care to tackle system wide failings in June 2013.
Ministers said they shared Ms Coffey’s concern about the numbers of children being placed out of area in residential care and announced a package of measures to strengthen the rules so that a senior official in the Local Authority had to approve out of area placements that were a significant distance from a child’s home to ensure it was in the best decision of the child. A new rule was also introduced that children’s homes must tell local authorities when children move into and out of their area.