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Former children’s commissioner raises fears for children at risk of criminal and sexual exploitation

Social workers identified 12,720 children in England as being at risk of criminal exploitation by gangs in 2020/21, new figures reveal.

The Department for Education statistics show 12,720 children assessed by children's social services in England between 1 April 2020 and 31 March 2021 were deemed to be at risk due to gang involvement. The figures also show there were 16,830 children where child sexual exploitation was a factor during their assessment and 2,710 children where trafficking was a factor.

Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former Children's Commissioner for England, said: “The number of children being referred to social services because of fears of gang exploitation is extremely troubling and likely only the tip of the iceberg. During a period when the country was in lockdown twice, thousands of vulnerable children were still being sucked into gangs, serious violence and crime or sexually exploited.”

The DfE's annual Children in Need data, also reveal a fall in the number of children being referred to social services during the Covid pandemic lockdown. There was a 31% drop in referrals from schools during the period when schools were closed twice to most children. This suggests some vulnerable children did drop out of the sight of teachers, who are often the first to spot the need for children's social services to assess a child.

The data also reveals:

  • There was a 5% decrease in the number of episodes of a child being referred to social services from 522,990 in 2019/20 to 496,030 in 2020/21.
  • School referrals to social services fell by 31% from 117,010 in pre-Covid 2019/20 to 81,180 in 2020/21 when there were two school lockdowns.
  • There were 12,720 children identified by children's social services as at risk due to involvement in gangs in 2020/21 - 13% lower than pre-Covid 2019/20 (14,700) but still 16% higher than 2018/19 (10,960).
  • There were 3,500 children identified in London as a being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs, while 2650 children were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.
  • There were 1,750 children identified as a being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs in the North West while 2,440 children were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.
  • In Yorkshire and the Humber, 1,090 children were identified as being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs and 1,760 as a result of child sexual exploitation.
  • There were 1,510 children identified in the South East as being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs and 2,540 were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.
  • In the West Midlands, 1,550 children were identified as being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs and 1,910 children were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.
  • There were 1,170 children identified in the East of England as being at risk as a result of involvement with gangs and 1,480 were identified as being at risk as a result of child sexual exploitation.

Anne Longfield added: “I am particularly worried about the very sharp drop in referrals during the two school lockdowns. Even though schools were open for vulnerable children, many did not attend, and it is very concerning that many have dropped off the radar since.

“We need to ask why we are still losing thousands of marginalised teenagers to the ruthless criminals who are so adept at spotting and exploiting vulnerable children and how we can find better solutions to stop it from happening.

“It is clear these problems are not going to solve themselves and we are still giving too many abusers and exploiters a free pass to use and harm children.

“The systems that are supposed to be there to help vulnerable children are under pressure and badly need reforming. It is time to find new ways of bringing hope and success to young people who fall through the gaps and end up in danger.

"I welcome the announcements of funding for children and families in the Budget. But this needs to be the start of something much bigger to enable all children and young people to be part of this new era, and so that the most vulnerable children are given the same chances to level up as any other child,” she concluded.

Characteristics of children in need

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