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Cash-strapped authorities leave families navigating own problems with teens such as exploitation and gangs

A lack of support for families is placing young people at risk of criminal exploitation, county lines, gangs and violence, a report has warned.

The Commission on Young Lives report outlines how parents have told them that they have called the police and social services desperate for help, only to be told that no help exists, or they have been given ineffective responses.

Services, which were struggling to meet demand pre-pandemic have been stretched further leaving thousands of vulnerable teenagers at risk.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “The conveyor belt of vulnerable children available to county lines, gangs, and abusers will continue to roll on while families are left without help beyond a blizzard of bureaucracy and assessment forms, and where they feel services are being done to them rather than with them.”

The report highlights a decade of cuts in services and falling support for those families living in poverty and/or homes where there is domestic violence, serious mental health illness or addiction issues.

Many examples of good practice are outlined in the report, however, there remains a dearth of effective joined up family-focused support for teens at risk of extrafamilial harm. Many families in need of help to avert or deal with crisis are instead facing a blizzard of bureaucracy and assessment or, in some cases, just a brick wall.

Many of the problems are compounded in the most disadvantaged communities, yet the Commission has heard from a growing number of parents from middle class families struggling to get help when crises occur, such as when they find a burner phone, unexplained amounts of money or knives in their children's bedrooms.

When they are unable to access statutory help, some parents described having to become 'instant experts', trying to navigate issues around grooming, exploitation and county lines and to access services new to them.

Some parents had to find the money to pay off their child's 'debt bond' to a gang, to free them and for those families already struggling financially, this is even more difficult as many have fewer resources and lower levels of confidence and trust in statutory services.

The problems are exacerbated in Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic children. The report re-emphasises the importance of early intervention and the long-term damage done by reduced public spending in these areas, combined with a rise in child poverty and a continued lack of affordable housing.

The Commission welcomes the government pledge to spend £492m on early help services over the next three years, however spending on early intervention support in areas of England with the highest levels of child poverty fell by 53% between 2010 and 2019. Between 2010 and 2020, local government spending on early intervention fell 48% while money spent on later, costlier and higher-intensity interventions increased by 34%.

The massive reduction in funding for Sure Start centres is slammed by the Commission as "a huge historic mistake" - one that not only resulted in many children and families paying a heavy price, but which also proved to be a false economy.

Furthermore, the current plans for Family Hubs are nowhere near ambitious enough to reverse this trend and the government needs to take a more determined and ambitious approach to funding.

The Commission's report shows why long-term - and sometimes intense - support is vital and that this is being delivered successfully in some areas. It makes recommendations around early intervention and family support for children of all ages, focusing on what is needed by families when the problems that place teenagers at risk of extrafamilial harm emerge, as well as interventions at crisis point.

The Commission’s report recommends:

  • There should be a legal duty for local agencies to deliver early intervention, backed by data-led early identification, to support children and families as a central aspect of a new strategic approach to support throughout childhood. This should include a specific strategy for supporting Black, Brown and Minority Ethnic families.
  • Government should roll out of Family Hubs in every disadvantaged area as a first step, with a longer-term ambition to extend coverage to the 3,000 communities who formerly had a Sure Start centre. Local authorities should also establish a coherent and joined-up 'teenager at risk' offer as a requirement in every Family Hub, explaining clearly to parents and teenagers what services they are entitled to and how they can access them.
  • Charities and community groups should be embedded as a core partner in delivering support for children and families, including the provision of Family Hubs.
  • There should be a new focus on practical, long-term help for families to prevent children from being taken into care with a new entitlement for families to help shape the solution. The Department for Education should work with local authorities and other partners to develop and trial new models of intense family support for families with teenagers at risk as part of a Teenager in Need programme.
  • There should be a national support programme to extend kinship care for teenagers at risk, including the replication of programmes such as Family Rights Group Lifelong Links programme.
  • Government should reintroduce the Family Test promised by David Cameron in 2014 as a requirement to assess impact of all government policies.
  • The Supporting Families Programme should be funded to develop a five-year extended programme of family support for older children at risk as a specialist programme to be run with every local authority and in conjunction with the Youth Endowment Foundation and Violence Reduction Units.
  • A proportion of the government's unspent tutoring funding should be reallocated to recruit 2000 Attendance Practitioners and 2000 Family Workers to support absent children to return to school after the pandemic.
  • Government should recreates its disbanded Child Poverty Unit with an initial target to publish a cross government poverty reduction plan by April 2023.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, said: “I am increasingly struck by the number of middle-class parents who are discovering what many disadvantaged families have known for years: organised criminals have a ruthless business model, and the decade-long breakdown in help and support, combined with the impact of Covid, is exposing their teenage children to serious violence and exploitation. They don't know where to turn to when it happens and feel abandoned and ignored.

“Families are our biggest asset in the fight against criminal exploitation, but they can't do it on their own. The massive reduction in funding for Sure Start centres was a huge historic mistake that not only resulted in many children and families paying a heavy price, but which also proved to be a false economy. Family Hub plans are welcome but are not ambitious enough.

“Government's ambition must be for a new partnership with families that provides statutory services, and charitable groups with the armoury they need to fight back. We need to tackle child poverty by reintroducing a Child Poverty Unit at the heart of government and we need to stand up for families by implementing David Cameron's "family test".

“If we help and support parents, we make it harder for children to be groomed, coerced, exploited and harmed. Those who seek to exploit children know it and policymakers and services need to catch up fast,” she concluded.

The report is available here.

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