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Care system is ‘unfit for purpose’ says former children’s commissioner

The current care system is unfit for purpose and is handing over some vulnerable children to criminals and abusers rather than ensuring they are protected, the Commission on Young Lives has warned.

Vulnerable teenagers are moved away from their families and communities, are too frequently shipped from placement to placement and continue to be placed in accommodation that puts them at risk of harm - sometimes alongside adults and those involved with drugs and crime.

Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “A children's social care system that is supposed to protect vulnerable teenagers is frequently putting them in even greater danger. Often, we may as well be handing over children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals. It is unfit for purpose.

“We know the number of vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation entering the care system is becoming older, with more complex and expensive needs, and growing. We also know this is putting an enormous strain on the whole children's social care system. The recent horrific murders of two young children show the tragic consequence of a child protection system stretched to its absolute limit,” she added.

The Commission on Young Lives, hosted by the Oasis Charitable Trust, launched in September 2021 and is chaired by former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield.

The report 'Out of Harm's Way: A new care system to protect vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation and crime', is the first of a year-long series of reports into teenagers at risk and its publication follows the recent tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes  and Star Hobson .

These tragic murders have revealed a children's social care system stretched to its limits. In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1% rise on the year before and the highest on record. Social services' caseloads are increasing, and the costs of care are increasing, as 10-15-year-olds become the fastest growing group of children entering care and 16-and-17-year-olds with acute needs now make up 23% of children in care. With the average costs of care for many of these children at £200,000 per year, the cost of crisis care is escalating, leaving funds available for early intervention and prevention reduced year on year.

The Commission believes the care system was designed for younger children and is struggling to adapt to the needs of older children who are increasingly entering the care system.

The report also reveals how the care system is failing some Black boys with Black boys in care more likely to go on and enter the youth justice system, and how this problem is worsening as the number of Black boys going into care rises. The Commission also heard evidence that Black boys, who are already disproportionately affected by gang criminal exploitation, are often receiving different services, including police responses, and how Black teenage boys are less likely to be seen as victims and more likely to be viewed as offenders.

Black children are already more likely to be in care compared with their share of the under-18 population, while the number of Black children in care who were adopted dropped by 50% between 2015 and 2019.

The Commission also published the results of a Freedom of Information request from 22 boroughs in London, where there is a particularly chronic shortage of care places for teenagers. Hundreds of children in care in London are being placed 'out of borough' and into semi-independent accommodation, which is often unregulated, unsuitable and a magnet for criminal and sexual exploiters.

The FOI request reveals:

  • There were at least 1,932 children in care in London in 2020-21 who were living in semi-independent accommodation - an increase over the last three years.
  • There were at least 4,340 children in care in London boroughs who spent some or all of their time in a placement out of their local borough.
  • At least 1,516 in care in London boroughs spent some or all of their time in placements outside of Greater London.
  • There is a significant gender and age split of children taken into care in London, with more boys taken into care than girls.
  • There were 1,341 over 12s taken into care and 655 over 16s in 2020-21 in the reporting London boroughs - showing the increasing proportion of older adolescents making up the new care system cohort.

    These figures are a low estimate and are likely to be much higher across London given some boroughs with the largest numbers of children in care did not respond to the FOI.

The report urges the government to establish a 'Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk' ministerial taskforce, along the lines of the defunct Serious Violence Taskforce established by the previous Prime Minister. The Department for Education should establish a 'teenagers out of harm' programme that guarantees teenagers are not placed in inappropriate care placements, and a ban on the use of unregulated accommodation for all under-18s in care.

The Department for Education to establish a new 'Teenager in Care' package of appropriate and high-quality modes of care for teenagers, accelerating its programme to increase the capacity of residential care for teenagers and financing new local community children's homes.

Specialist teen foster carers should be sought through a national recruitment programme which encourages youth workers and others with specialist knowledge and skills in working with young people to become foster carers, with a bespoke package of support.

Funding from the Supporting Families and Family Hubs programmes should be used to prioritise support for vulnerable children with a particular emphasis on supporting families with teenagers at risk.

A new Teenager at Risk helpline should also be launched aimed at both vulnerable children and parents and families.

Anne Longfield said: “Resetting children's social care in this new offer for teenagers will require determined action and some funding, but it is clear there are huge benefits not only to those vulnerable young people who need protection, but also to the public purse.

“We need a new offer for vulnerable teenagers in care and on the edge of care, and this report provides one,” she concluded.

Out of Harms Way

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