A solicitor is planning to challenge the law so that local authorities are made responsible for abuse carried out by foster parents on children in their care, writes Victoria Macdonald.

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For seven years Emma (not her real name) was abused on an almost daily basis. The abuse was not by a relative or a stranger but by her foster father - the very person who was meant to be keeping her safe.

Emma has now left foster care and is married but earlier this year she tried to commit suicide, such is her continuing despair at what she had to endure. She told Channel 4 News: "I am still in counselling, going through therapy. I have still to go to the crisis team involved. I still have my down days."

She said: "When I was 11, the dad started being a bit touchy feely and it got worse from that. It wasn't until I was 13 that his son started joining in on it. And that carried on till I was 18."

I still have my down days. Emma (not her real name) who was abused by her foster father

Emma was seriously let down by the adults who had been entrusted with her care. But what Channel 4 News has discovered is that nobody knows how many children in foster care are abused, nor are details of what happens to the children, or the perpetrators, recorded or collated.

Unanswered questions

Ofsted collates figures on the number of allegations of misconduct made each year and how many referrals are made to the independent safeguarding authority. But that leaves many questions unanswered.

We have also learned that because of a gaping hole in the legislation, local authorities cannot always be held legally responsible for that abuse, even though they are the ones who placed the child in foster care in the first place. Yet if children are placed in residential care and abused, the local authority is considered legally liable.

Now a solicitor is planning to challenge this law by bringing a case that he hopes will prove a local authority's "vicarious liability" for damage done to children in foster care. It is similar to legal cases brought against the Catholic church, where people alleging historic abuse by a deceased priest have claimed that the church itself should be responsible because they were effectively the employers.

Proving negligence

Local authorities can be held responsible if negligence is proved, but that is notoriously difficult in abuse cases. The solicitor David Greenwood says that if it can be proved - and he has high hopes - then that means, first, children will be able to sue for compensation and, secondly, it will improve safeguarding because the authorities will have to improve their levels of supervision.

Cases like these will also be helped if the collection of the most basic data can be improved. Our own freedom of information requests resulted in detailed responses from only 23 UK local authorities. But these showed 53 per cent were for physical abuse, 18 per cent for neglect, and 10 per cent for sexual abuse.

A total of 57 authorities responded in total. Of these responses, around one in five of the allegations was upheld.

Questions to answer

Now the NSPCC has commissioned Professor Nina Biehal, from the University of York's Social Policy Research Unit, to investigate further. Professor Biehal said among the questions that needed answering are whether it was emotional abuse, neglect, physical or sexual.

"People have long been aware of the problem of allegations against foster carers, many of which prove to be unfounded. But there has been very little attention to how many do actually experience abuse and neglect in foster care."

Currently, around 75 per cent of children in care are placed with foster parents, and the government wants to increase those numbers. It is also the case that foster care works well in many cases. The problem is that nobody really knows how often it is going wrong.

And in response to our findings, the government said: "We are working with local authorities, independent fostering services and foster carers to improve the way allegations are handled and address issues around support for foster families, the timeliness of investigations and the threshold for removing children from the foster home."

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