Soaring numbers of very vulnerable children are being “farmed out” to live in children’s homes vast distances from where they live.
I am increasingly concerned about this as there is growing evidence that this “sent away generation” are in danger of falling prey to paedophiles and drugs gangs.
What is particularly shocking is that the government promised to cut the numbers of children being sent to live in so-called ‘out of borough’ placements five years ago. But ministers have broken that pledge and latest figures reveal a 64% increase in the numbers of children being sent away between 2012 and 2017 from 2,250 to 3,680.
There has also been a huge increase in the number of sent-away children going missing with the number of missing incidents more than doubling to almost 10,000 a year.
There are very strong links between children going missing and sexual exploitation as was seen in the scandals in Rotherham and Rochdale. The National Crime Agency also reported that children groomed to sell Class A drugs in ‘County Lines’ operations are often listed as missing. I recently conducted a survey of all police forces on County Lines and obtained evidence that children in out of borough placements were being particularly targeted by criminal gangs because they were seen as the most vulnerable.
Figures from my own area reveal that 53% of children reported as missing from local children’s homes in Stockport in the month of April were classed as at risk of child sexual exploitation.
In 2012 the APPG for Missing Children, which I chair, conducted an inquiry into children missing from care which called for a reduction in the number of out of borough placements and revealed that children placed a long way from home were at greater risk of going missing and at a higher risk of physical and sexual abuse, criminality and homelessness.
Children gave evidence that they felt isolated and “dumped” away from home which increased their propensity to go missing.
In response to this, in 2013 the government proposed a fundamental overall of children’s residential care including measures to clampdown on out of borough placements.
And yet the numbers have continued to rise to a situation where 61% of all children in children’s homes now live out of borough.
They go missing at a faster rate and are targeted frequently by paedophiles and criminals.
The incidence of children going missing from “out of borough” placements has in increased by 110% from 4,380 incidents in 2015 to 9,910 in 2017. A faster rate of increase than for those going missing from children’s homes within their own borough, which increased by 68%.
There is no doubt that the private sector marketplace in social care is catastrophically failing children. Some homes now charge up to £5,000 a week per child. It also costs the police millions of pounds coping with missing episodes.
The high numbers of children sent away has been mainly caused by the uneven distribution of children’s homes around the country. 54% of homes are in just three regions and nearly a quarter are in the North West. So local authorities have their hands tied about where children can be placed.
Indeed figures from the North West show that local children from the North West have to be sent to live miles away from the region as beds in the region are taken up by young people from other areas, such is the chaotic nature of the children’s homes market.
The farming out of children to areas where they have no friends or family or local social workers has created a “perfect storm” where it is increasingly difficult to protect children.
The system is working in the interests of the private providers but crucially not for the children themselves. It is not fit for purpose.
Ann Coffey is the Labour MP for Stockport and chair of the APPG for Missing Children