Care system “unsuitable for purpose” and putting thousands of children at risk of exploitation, report says

The Commission on Young Lives, chaired by former Children ‘s Commissioner Anne Longfield, said the system is designed to deal with young children and “often fails to cope” with the growing number of teenagers in the process. difficulty.

He said thousands of adolescents under the age of 18 are moved to “insufficient and unsafe” unregulated housing – far from their homes and support networks – and then actively targeted by violent gangs. and forced to sell drugs.

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The total number of children in care reached 80,850 earlier this year, the highest on record, and children over 16 now represent 23% of those in care.

The Commission on Young Lives has found that thousands of teens are being moved to unregulated “unsuitable and unsafe” housing, far from their homes and support networks.

There were 6,050 children in unregulated housing in 2020/21 and 86 councils recently provided these placements, sending some to live in tents and caravans.

The report, titled “Out of Harm’s Way,” said that most children’s homes are run by individuals and that there is a “chronic lack” of suitable places for adolescents, so younger children with less complex needs are often given priority.

The commission, which assembled a panel of experts, also found that the overall response of protection agencies working to protect adolescents is “confused and inadequate” in most cases, due to a lack of funding. and coordination.

Social services discovered 12,720 children in England were involved in gangs in the year ending March 2021, but Ms Longfield warned it was “the tip of the iceberg”.

Former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield created the Commission on Young Lives

Criminals often target vulnerable children, who are surrounded by addictions, poverty, violence and mental health issues, and the commission is concerned the pandemic has exposed more young people to these issues.

The report examines cases involving several teenagers, including Michael, 15, who was subjected to 10 referrals to social services because his mother struggled with issues of domestic violence and alcohol addiction. After being taken care of overnight and then returned to his unstable home, he was treated by a gang and ended up stabbing another boy.

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According to the report, most of the children treated are boys and black boys are disproportionately affected, but gangs are also “increasingly targeting girls.”

The report said: “The experience of exploited adolescents is grim and the system in place to support them is grossly inadequate. Too many children die or suffer serious harm as a result of criminal exploitation.

He added: “The scale and urgency of the response is not of the level necessary to protect the thousands of adolescents who are at risk of harm. We have to face the fact that we are dealing with organized criminals who are nimble and ruthless.

“Their business model depends on the exploitation of children, using coercion, control and manipulation to push them into criminal activity and they are highly skilled at identifying and trapping children who are often too afraid to go away.

“We now need a widespread change in the way social and other services respond to vulnerable adolescents on a daily basis. “

The commission, which is due to publish a series of reports over the next nine months, has recommended several reforms to improve the care system and protect adolescents.

He called on the government to ban the use of unregulated housing for all under-18s in care and to fund more municipality-run children’s homes so that adolescents can stay in their local communities and receive support. professionals and their families.

The government is expected to launch a national recruitment program for specialized foster families for adolescents, encouraging educators and others with experience of working with young people to become foster families, the commission added.

He also said that interventions to protect those already exploited “must be a priority for the care system”, and families should be supported so that they can keep these children safe at home, but local authorities, schools, general practitioners and the police must also develop a coordinated approach to deal with exploitation.

Ms Longfield said there was an urgent need for reform, and the recent murders of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, 6, and Star Hobson, 1, show “the tragic consequence of a system of protection of the childhood pushed to its absolute limits “.

She added: “A child welfare system that is supposed to protect vulnerable adolescents often puts them even more at risk. Often times, we may as well deliver children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals. It is unfit for use.

“We know that the number of vulnerable adolescents at risk of exploitation entering the care system is aging, with more complex and costly needs, and increasing. We also know that this puts enormous pressure on the entire child welfare system.

She added: “Resetting children’s social protection in this new offering for adolescents will require determined action and some funding, but it is clear that there are huge benefits not only for vulnerable young people who have need protection, but also for the public purse.

A spokeswoman for the education ministry said steps were being taken to protect children from “new and increasing risks” and that it “was urgently reforming the system to cope with increasing pressures.”

He has launched a £ 15million-backed Alternative Benefits Task Force that works to keep adolescents engaged in the education system, provide intensive support and prevent them from being dragged into gangs .

An additional £ 30million has been spent on SAFE (Support, Attend, Fulfil, Exceed) task forces, which are working to keep children in school in 10 hotbeds of severe violence.

The government is also increasing the number of places in children’s homes across the country, with an investment of £ 259million, and introducing national standards and Ofsted inspections for all providers of accommodation for children over 16 years old.

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