ADCS says suggestion is 'wholly inappropriate' - A row has erupted after the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults has slammed local authorities for unwittingly acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ for county lines drugs gangs by sending vulnerable children to live miles away from home.
A row has erupted after the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults has slammed local authorities for unwittingly acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’ for county lines drugs gangs by sending vulnerable children to live miles away from home.
An inquiry into children missing from out of area placements criticises local authorities for isolating children in care by placing them hundreds of miles from home, friends, family and social workers and making them magnets for paedophiles and ‘county lines’ gangs.
Anne Coffey, chair of the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: “It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for county lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away. It must stop.
“Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them.
“By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children," added Anne, who was elected in 1992 as the Member of Parliament for Stockport and prior to that worked as a children and families senior social worker.
However, Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of children's services said it was "a complex area of policy and practice". She added: "The suggestion in this report that local authorities are acting as ‘recruiting sergeants’, is wholly inappropriate and we are in dialogue with the report authors directly."
Cllr Teresa Heritage, Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board added: "Increasing numbers of older children are coming into care. As they are more likely to need accommodation in children’s homes, this is placing significant pressure on places. Most children’s homes are now also privately owned and concentrated in areas where accommodation is cheapest. Together, this can mean that councils are forced to place children out of area or in placements that are not best suited to a child’s needs."
The All Party Parliamentary Group inquiry received evidence suggesting that thousands of children are being put at risk by being moved to children’s homes up to 100 miles from where they live. More than 70 per cent of the 41 police forces that responded to the inquiry said that placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation often resulting in them being coerced into going missing.
By relocating children to different parts of the country, local authorities may also be inadvertently opening up new ‘county lines’ because criminals can groom children to sell heroin and crack cocaine, expanding their reach into rural, quieter parts of the country, the inquiry, which is supported by the Children’s Society, heard.
"There was evidence that county lines gangs have been sent to areas where young people are predominantly placed out of area to scout new ‘opportunities’ where they can develop ‘business’ and recruit new members," said the inquiry report.
Children are not being consulted with or informed before out of area placement moves. This causes additional stress and disruption in their lives increasing their level of vulnerability and can contribute towards why they go missing from out of area placements.
Furthermore, the inquiry found that children are often so unhappy at being miles from their friends and communities that they abscond, run back home, often hitching lifts in remote areas, or are enticed to run away by people seeking to exploit them. One girl told the inquiry she had run away 100 times since being moved out of county.
Given children in care have often experienced neglect and abuse, being placed miles from the area they know can often exacerbate their trauma and impact negatively on their emotional wellbeing. The report criticises the "failure of professionals to recognise the trauma and emotional impact that being sent away can have on young people who have already suffered neglect and trauma".
The inquiry report reveals that despite a government pledge to clampdown on out of area placements, and some councils working innovatively to reverse the trend, numbers have still soared since the APPG first raised concerns in 2012. the inquiry highlighted:
- Two thirds of all children living in children’s homes now live out of area, a rise from 46 per cent in 2012.
- Of the 443 children in children’s homes in Greater Manchester, 64 per cent were placed out of area in 2018, a rise of 44 per cent since 2015 from 196 to 283.
- The number of children reported missing from out of area placements has more than doubled since 2015, from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018, compared with a 31% increase for those missing from in area placements.
- The number of children reported missing from out of area placements in Greater Manchester has also doubled since 2015 from 70 in 2015 to 139 in 2018, compared with a 67 per cent rise for those missing from in area placements.
- Half of all missing episodes are from children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation.
The inquiry report also raised "deep concern" at the increase in numbers of older children, aged 16 plus, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation. Eighty per cent of the 40 police forces who gave evidence to the inquiry expressed concern about the rise in numbers of these establishments which are ‘off the radar’ because they are not regulated or inspected, unlike children’s homes.
More than 5,000 looked after children in England are living in this sort of accommodation, up 70 per cent from 2,900 a decade ago.
“Our inquiry has shone a light into the shady twilight world of unregulated accommodation for children aged 16 and over, who become magnets for paedophiles and county lines drugs gangs. This accommodation must be regulated and inspected," added Anne Coffey.
Police told the inquiry of their grave concerns of the use of unregulated accommodation for children. This included:
- Poorly managed homes with untrained staff situated in risky areas, in cheap locations.
- ‘Pop up’ children’s homes for 16 plus emerging in areas of high deprivation where housing is much cheaper.
- Children becoming isolated and targeted for child sexual exploitation or drugs running for county lines.
- Huge numbers of missing incidents with children frequently running away and the police are not even aware of the homes' existence until there is a missing incident.
- A child bailed for murder was placed in the same semi-independent home as a child victim of trafficking, who was immediately recruited to sell drugs across county lines.
- A female victim of child sexual exploitation was housed alongside a perpetrator of child sexual exploitation.
- One young person stabbed another after two opposing gang members were placed in the same unregistered home.
- Children are often housed alongside adult criminals or those with addiction problems.
The inquiry concluded that out of area placements are not made with the best interests of the child in mind but to suit the needs of the market.
Children and young people are being placed out of area into children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation due to a lack of suitable provision and the uneven distribution of homes across the country. Three quarters of all children’s homes are now private and are concentrated in three areas the North West, West Midlands and South East.
Many giving evidence said the system was ‘broken’ and not working for children as market forces were dictating where provision is available.
Rachel Dickinson, ADCS President, said: “Finding the right placement for children in care and keeping them safe is a priority for all local authorities. Whilst placing children close to their community, family and friends is preferable there are good reasons why a child might be placed further away including where there are concerns about their safety or their needs can’t be met locally."
She added that the child’s voice is critical but choosing the right placement can, at times, conflict with their wishes. She cited Sir Martin Narey's review of residential care which concluded that ‘the right placement for a child is more important than location’.
Cllr Teresa Heritage, Vice Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, added: “The welfare of the children they care for is of the utmost importance to councils. Placing children outside of their home area is always a decision they take seriously and may be needed to give them a new beginning away from abuse or neglect; for their own safety; to break gang affiliation, or to place them near other family members or to access specialist services.
“Funding pressures alongside soaring demand for care are preventing councils from investing in the accommodation and support options at the level they need in order to provide the best and most appropriate help for all children and young people," she added.
The APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults makes a number of recommendations and calls for the Department for Education to take responsibility and set up an Emergency Action Plan, backed up with funding, to slash the numbers of out of area placements. The plan would help local authorities plan sufficient numbers of local placements, which could involve increasing direct provision. The Department for Education and the Home Office should develop a cross-departmental strategy on tackling Child Criminal Exploitation and County lines specifically focusing on the risks to looked after children placed out of area.
Local authorities should be required to publish yearly sufficiency reports stipulating the number of in and out of area placements and cost of provision. Decisions to place a child out of area should be supported by evidence to demonstrate that the decision is for the child’s safety and there should be a new requirement on children’s services to demonstrate that children and young people have been consulted in advance.
Semi-independent accommodation should be regulated and inspected, it concludes.
Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society which supported the inquiry, said: “Our inquiry heard some truly shocking examples of the trauma and risk experienced by children placed out of area. It should be a wake up call for urgent action at both the national and local level. These children are some of the most vulnerable in society, it is vital their needs are put at the centre of all decisions about their placement. No looked after child should be placed simply because that is where a bed is free, instead of that is where the child is most likely to receive the care, support and sense of belonging they deserve.
“We are calling on the government to put in place an action plan and give councils more funding to ensure that there is a sufficient number of good quality, regulated and inspected care placements where children need them. Only then can we stop this epidemic of children being sent away, left feeling isolated and exposed to high risk," he added.
Rachel Dickinson, ADCS President, said: “Any increase in the number of out of area placements must be viewed in the context of a 24% increase in the number of children in our care over the past decade, a shortage of foster carers and placements in residential children’s homes, as well as a mismatch between the location of these placements and need. That local authority budgets have been halved since 2010 but need has not cannot be overlooked either as this is impacting on our ability to develop suitable, local options for children and young people. ADCS strongly cautions against the view that all young people in out of area placements or unregulated provision are badly placed or left without support, indeed there are some excellent providers of services and the report does not recognise the important work they do.
“Safeguarding is everyone’s business and local authorities, the police, health services and schools, who share our legal safeguarding duty, and the community must work together to keep children safe, particularly if a child is new to the area. Any increase in children going missing is a concern for local authorities. This can often be a symptom of wider problems in a child’s life and is not restricted to children in care.
However, we must pay special attention to this cohort, given local authorities’ particular responsibility for these children and their additional vulnerability. This is a complex area of policy and practice and it is important that we all work together to keep children and young people safe rather than pointing fingers at one another," she added.
The LGA's Cllr Teresa Heritage concluded: “It is vital that the government works with councils to understand these [financial] pressures and provides appropriate funding to ensure the right homes are available for all children, whatever their needs.”