Urgent reforms to protect children in residential homes from sexual exploitation are announced after it is revealed that a disproportionate number of cared-for children are being groomed or abused.
A report by Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz reveals that some residential homes are specifically targeted by abusers.
It says that the high turnover of young people in care means that “there is a constant flow of vulnerable children for perpetrators to exploit”.
The report was ordered after the sentencing in May of nine men who groomed and abused young girls in Rochdale.
Ministers have expressed alarm that there is no coherent set of figures for the number of children that go missing from care, which prevents children at risk being properly identified.
They have responded by setting up an expert group to develop an improved data system to resolve the huge discrepancies between the official local authority figures of children in care who go missing from care for more than 24 hours, and incidents recorded by the police.
The government has called for children in care to be looked after nearer their local area, after an all-party parliamentary group revealed last month that 46 per cent are placed in homes miles away from their home towns.
The government said it accepted that there is sometimes a need for this, but added that was difficult to accept that nearly half of all children in children’s homes benefit from such distant placements.
We want to get rid of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture which sees residential care as a last resort. Tim Loughton, children’s minister
Children’s minister Tim Loughton said the report lift the lid on “very serious weaknesses” in the system. “It is completely unacceptable that existing rules are simply being ignored and that frankly, some local authorities and homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper ‘parent’.
“We want to get rid of an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture which sees residential care as a last resort, instead of protecting vulnerable young people and giving them the best possible start in life.”
Children’s charity Barnardo’s said 31 per cent of the 3,500 young people it looked after through its sexual exploitation services in the last six years were in care.
Chief Executive Anne Marie Carrie said: “We know that children from all walks of life are at risk of child sexual exploitation, but those who are already vulnerable, such as children in care, are especially so.
“We need to be sure that by clustering vulnerable children together in certain areas of England we are not putting already desperate children in even greater danger of being preyed upon.
“It is worrying that we don’t know the true level of this threat and better data collection will be key. However, action is also needed to protect those children in care now.”
Ann Coffey MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, said she welcomed action to clamp down on the high numbers of children being homed out of their boroughs.
We would never forgive ourselves if by inaction we allowed more children to be lured into the living nightmare of sexual exploitation. Ann Coffey MP
She said: “Failure to take action will lead to more and more horrific Rochdale cases. We would never forgive ourselves if by inaction we allowed more children to be lured into the living nightmare of sexual exploitation.”
Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is a scandal that children who go missing from care are being systematically failed and placed in great danger by a system that is allegedly there to protect them.
“The recent exposure of horrific cases of sexual exploitation, trafficking and other shocking crimes leave no room for doubt that there are huge gaps in the system that must be closed urgently.
“There must be a dramatic change in attitudes and culture towards these very vulnerable children.”
Jarone Macklin-Page, who spent time in a care home between the ages of 14 and 17, welcomed the reforms, but urged Mr Loughton to go further and look at vulnerable children in foster care, adoptive families and birth families.
“If you are going to alleviate the problem of vulnerable kids being exploited by people then all of that needs to be addressed.”