Are Children Safe in Local Authority Care?

A Parliamentary inquiry started in February 2019, into the growing trend of local authorities to “farm out” vulnerable youngsters to care & foster homes far from their birth families, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation, just as a group of parents planned legal action to ensure their children are housed in residential care homes close to where they live.

The legal action claims that the use of out-of-borough placements of children in care is increasing. One example cited was of a teenage boy, under the care order to Bromley social services, who was sent to a care home in the Midlands, 130 miles from his family home in London. According to the Guardian (on 16.2.19) concerns were raised that three employees at the home in the Midlands were suspended pending an investigation by police into alleged sexual abuse. The boy’s birth father requested that his son be moved to a London home, on the grounds that the incident at the care home, in which his son was not involved, had left his son traumatised. This claim was rejected by Bromley social services.

The father was only formally notified about the alleged incident 10 days afterwards, and it took another two weeks before a social worker from Bromley visited the home. The boy also missed out on eight months of education. The father, who is hoping to resume care of his son, was quoted in the Guardian article as saying “We’re all trying to build relationships with our children and get our lives back on track. But how can you do this when you’re hundreds of miles apart?”

According to the inquiry, started by an all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children, figures collated show that the practice of farming out vulnerable youngsters increased by 77% since 2012, representing almost 4,000 children and more than 60% of all children in residential care homes. The Parliamentary inquiry, chaired by Labour MP Ann Coffey, also heard evidence from police of the targeting of children in care, especially those living away from their home areas, by drugs gangs with county lines operations. Ann Coffey said that “When children are placed at a distance from their family and friends they become isolated, it increases their chances of going missing, and they are more prone to exploitation by sexual predators and criminal gangs. It’s also harder to rehabilitate them within the family and the community.”

The main cause of the problem is said to be the unequal geographical distribution of children’s homes. It was said that more than half of them are located in just three regions. Many care home operators establish them in clusters, which makes them easier to manage and more profitable (up to £5,000 per week per child). Local authorities used to run their own care homes, but few now do so, meaning children are placed wherever there are vacancies. Ann Coffey MP said, “The private sector marketplace in social care is catastrophically failing children. The system is working in the interests of the providers but not for the children themselves. It is not fit for purpose.”

However, Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, was quoted in the Guardian article as saying “Work is under way to help ensure better commissioning of placements. This includes providing funding through part of our £200m children’s social care innovation programme to projects that increase councils’ capacity so that fewer children are placed far away from home. We are also providing several local authorities with seed-funding to explore the possibility of setting up new secure provision where out-of-area placements are particularly common.”

A Bromley Council spokesman told the Guardian that “In 85% of cases, we place children close to their homes. We would only place at a distance for specific reasons and in the best interests of the child.”

All of this occurs whilst the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA), led by Professor Alexis Jay, into young offender facilities, secure training centres and secure children’s homes, heard that children in local authority care in England and Wales are being exposed to “harrowing incidents” of physical and sexual abuse, mainly involving staff inappropriately touching detainees during body searches or restraint. The inquiry heard of 1,070 reported incidents of abuse between 2009-2017. The figure is considered high particularly as the current population of children in custody is around 900.

According to BBC online news (on 28.2.19), Professor Alexis Jay, the Inquiry chair, said she was “Deeply disturbed by the continuing problem of child sexual abuse in these institutions over the last decade,” and warned children in institutions were still at risk. According to the BBC article, Professor Jay said “It is clear these children, who are some of the most vulnerable in society, are still at risk of sexual abuse. I hope our report and recommendations can help protect them better in future.”

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse is part of a wider investigation into child abuse in England and Wales, and heard two weeks of evidence in July last year. The Inquiry has published reports for its legal investigations, research work and the Truth Project, as well as an Interim Report, which included recommendations to Parliament. IICSA examined various institutional failures, and said cultural factors in custodial institutions could prevent proper prevention, exposure and investigation of child abuse. It said children in detention could often seem to lack credibility due to their age, mental health or offending behaviour, and that the closed nature of such institutions meant the normal scrutiny of parents, friends and visitors was not possible.

This evidence to the IICSA inquiry follows recent examples of abuse including an allegation that a member of staff had abused children at Medway secure training centre in Kent in 2015, and members of staff at Rainsbrook secure training centre in Warwickshire allegedly allowed two detained children to go into a bedroom together, knowing that one of them was going abuse the other.

The IICSA report said there was a power imbalance between staff and children, where staff were trained to use force, including “pain compliance techniques,” which are allowed by Ministry of Justice guidance, and include manipulating a person’s joints or activating pressure points to achieve ‘good order and discipline’, and bending a child’s thumb or wrist. The report said children were dependent on staff for every part of day-to-day life, including access to privileges, food and visits, and that the Ministry of Justice should prohibit the use of “pain compliance techniques” and work with the DFE on policies to safeguard children in institutions.

The independent inquiry called for the Department for Education and the Youth Custody service to review whether children who need help for welfare reasons should be placed with children who are in the criminal justice system.

Justice Minister Edward Argar said that whilst details in the IICSA report were shocking, the government recognised the need for reform to ensure the safety, welfare and rehabilitation of young people are prioritised, and that “We are already conducting an urgent review into safeguarding in the youth estate, rolling out new specialist training for staff and have commissioned an independent review of pain-inducing restraint techniques.”

As practioners, given these facts, figures and ongoing research and Inquiries, this is an area where we ought to consider very carefully when acting in Care Proceedings regarding placements.