Urgent reforms to protect children in residential care from sexual exploitation
Urgent reforms to protect children in residential care homes from sexual exploitation and to overhaul the wider system have been announced today by Children’s Minister Tim Loughton.
The measures include more robust checks before children are placed in homes outside their home boroughs; overhauling the quality and transparency of data so there is a clear picture of children who go missing from care; and reviewing all aspects of the quality and effectiveness of children’s homes – including their management, ownership and staffing.
Ministers have also ordered the lifting of regulations which stop Ofsted telling police and other appropriate agencies the location of children’s homes – a key concern in keeping children in care fully protected.
The Government has also today published a progress report on the national Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan published in November 2011 and ‘step-by-step’ guidance for frontline staff – which sets out ongoing work with the courts, police and social services to prosecute and jail abusers; protect young people at risk; and help victims of these appalling crimes get their lives back on track.
This action comes after a report published today by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz – ordered after the sentencing in May of nine men who groomed and abused young girls in Rochdale.
Ministers asked her to report urgently on emerging findings from her ongoing Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups inquiry, including recommendations on specific risks facing looked-after children living in care homes.
Her report finds growing evidence that children in care are particularly vulnerable to child sexual exploitation – with a disproportionate number being groomed or sexually exploited, although the majority of known victims are outside the care system.
It finds there is a clear emerging picture that some residential homes are specifically targeted by abusers and that given the high turnover of young people in care, “there is a constant flow of vulnerable children for perpetrators to exploit”.
It finds evidence that some children who are being sexually exploited may “introduce” other children within homes to their abusers – where they are forced or threatened to bring other children when they meet their exploiters.
And it makes a series of recommendations to address serious weaknesses in how care homes report and react to children going missing; in the checks made before children are placed into care homes; and weaknesses in staff skills and management quality.
Her interim report with fuller findings will be published in September and her final report in autumn 2013. It also follows a damning report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Children Missing From Care published last month, which said there was a “scandal” in the care system and called for urgent action to address key failings.
Ministers accept recommendations in both reports about how to secure improvements and provide better support and safety in children's homes.
This will build on Ofsted’s tougher new framework, introduced in April 2012, for the inspection of children’s homes that focuses far more strongly at whether a home has taken action to implement recommendations in previous reports, and whether improvements are flowing through in consequence.
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said:
These reports lift the lid on very serious weaknesses in the system. There are good children’s homes and excellent care workers but it is clear that far too many of the most vulnerable children in society are being exposed to harm and danger. 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 are setting out urgent, immediate steps to protect children in care and address all the weaknesses. These are big changes to a system which has been letting down too many children. The cost of care in a local authority children’s home is some £3,000 per resident week, and £2,600 in a private or voluntary home – so it is outrageous if they are not shielding young people from harm. 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.
The immediate action announced today:
Create a clear picture of children missing from care.
Ministers are alarmed 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 – and are clear that local agencies must be held accountable. We are setting up a new expert group to develop a robust, transparent and high quality data system. This will 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 reported to and recorded by the police. The Department has written to all local authorities asking them to immediately review their own data collections alongside local police figures.
Ensure children’s homes are properly protected and located. Ministers have ordered immediate changes to regulations so that Ofsted can share information about the location of children’s homes with the police, and other relevant bodies as appropriate – a key criticism of the current system.
Help children be located in homes nearer to their local area. Ministers are today announcing a `task and finish group’ to report urgently by September on tougher regulations and checks before any local authority can place a child outside their home borough.
Ministers accept there may be good reasons for placing a child or young person at some distance from their home area but argue it is difficult to accept that nearly half of all children in children’s homes benefit from such distant placements. Both reports are clear about the problems that can arise.
The government will consult on changes in the autumn.
The group will focus on:
The dependence of some local authorities on out of area children’s homes, often at a considerable distance, in meeting the needs of a significant number of the most challenging children in their care. The group will be asked to consider how to ensure that there is much better scrutiny, planning and assessment of risks, before decisions are taken to place a child at a distance. This will include establishing how the placing authority should satisfy itself that the environment of the home will be appropriate for the child in question, and that they can reasonably be expected to be safe in the community within which they will be placed.
Whether further changes to the care planning framework are required to ensure that local authorities will always respond appropriately when difficulties emerge in children’s placements – for example whether there is a role for the Independent Reviewing Officers in ensuring that the plan for the child is reviewed if there is an emerging pattern of going missing from their home and putting themselves at risk of sexual exploitation.
The need for all children’s homes to work collaboratively with their local police forces and other local safeguarding services. Homes should have strong policies for preventing children from running away or from being sexually exploited but also for responding effectively when these crises do occur in children’s lives.
The local authority’s responsibilities for monitoring the quality of the care in homes located in their areas and the steps they should take if they consider that a home is failing to offer children the supervision and support that they need.
Taking forward work to develop “risk mapping” for those areas where there are high concentrations of children’s homes to assess the general safety of these communities as places for bringing up our most vulnerable looked after children – for example whether homes are located alongside hostels and other accommodation for adult offenders, or are in areas where there is known to be a high level of prostitution.
Drive up quality and effectiveness of children’s homes.
Ministers are setting up a further expert working group that will have a broad remit to review and develop a clear action plan to drive up the quality of provision being delivered within children’s homes, including the qualifications and skills of the workforce. It will review questions relating to:
The location of homes and models of ownership and commissioning practice.
How homes can offer a more therapeutic environment to help children overcome their difficulties.
What staff development is needed to manage children’s behaviour, including when it is appropriate to use restraint.
The effectiveness of current arrangements to drive improvement across the sector.
The group will report to ministers by December, with a clear reform timetable.