Vulnerable children treated ‘like cattle’ in care home system

From The Guardian, 10 Nov 2018. The original article can be read here.

By Patrick Greenfield and Sarah Marsh

Experts raise concerns over safety and privacy of young people in social care system in England and Wales

Vulnerable children are being “treated like cattle” and moved around care homes in England and Wales, with councils routinely inviting companies to compete for the contracts through an online bidding process, experts have said.

A Guardian investigation found evidence of local authorities putting the personal details of children in online adverts, including information about previous sexual abuse and gang involvement, while inviting bids from private companies for their care.

Care workers, teachers, MPs and charities expressed concern that children’s care homes are in a state of crisis, with private companies taking over the market and charging councils more than £7,000 a week per child for residential placements.

Nadhim Zahawi, the minister for children and families, said it was completely unacceptable for local authorities “to promote or be seen to seemingly auction children in care”. He added that Ofsted would challenge any council not meeting its statutory responsibilities.

Local authorities usually source residential placements for children in their care through supply agreements with privately run providers. However, an increasing number of cases that require specialist care, combined with a lack of supply, has meant councils are forced to use an online tendering system to attract bids. Due to a lack of alternatives, private providers can often dictate pricing for placements, the Guardian understands.

Knowsley council in Merseyside has published at least five adverts this year that included personal details such as date of birth, family history and accounts of sexual abuse, while inviting bids for children’s care. The adverts have since been removed after the council was contacted by the Guardian.

One advert for the care of a 14-year-old boy included lengthy details of historic sexual abuse he experienced and inappropriate sexual behaviour. Another advert for the residential care of a 15-year-old give details about his gang involvement, childhood trauma and difficult family relationships.

Knowsley council said “the level of personal information included in the profile for these children was unnecessarily detailed”, and has removed all previous advertisements from the system. It said placements had been publicised in this way during challenging market conditions and described it as normal practice for local authorities to use online adverts when necessary.

One care worker employed by a home run by a private company in London described a system where children are brought in at any cost, sometimes placed in homes that do not have a space or sent hundreds of miles away. Speaking anonymously, she said it was like “legalised trafficking” and children were constantly moved around.

“Children are cattle, they are there to fill a spot. You get a kid from the north, the home cannot control the kid, so they bring them down to a different house. That child cannot be controlled at that house so they send them elsewhere,” she said.

“The worse off the kid is, the more money they get, and the more money they get, they will push other children out.”

Ann Coffey, the chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, said: “Children are being treated in a barbaric manner by being randomly auctioned out online to private companies … This chaotic bidding system is not how the care needs of vulnerable children should be met. It is a catastrophic failure.”

She added that the system needed urgent reform and was working in the “interests of private providers, but crucially not for the children themselves”.

Anntoinette Bramble, the chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said while many private providers did a good job, a minority were “taking advantage of the system by charging disproportionately high fees to councils, which are often left with little choice when urgent action is needed to safeguard a child”.

Figures seen by the Guardian from Manchester city council show the weekly cost of residential care from a private provider is as much as £6,724, compared with £3,942 at the council’s homes.

Bramble said: “With councils facing a £3bn funding gap for children’s services by 2025, we feel it is immoral that significant private profit can be made on the back of vulnerable children and young people.”

Concerns are growing about the cost to councils of outsourcing care services. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that private foster care agencies that charge local authorities to match vulnerable children with carers were increasing the cost of finding placements.

A study from the Association of Directors of Children’s Services highlighted the cost of children’s placements as one of the biggest financial pressures on local authorities.

The marketisation of children’s homes, 73% of which are privately owned, is also leading to a concentration of homes in the north-west and south-east of England, due to low operating costs in these areas, according to experts.

Out-of-borough placements for children in care have risen from 2,250 in 2012 to 3,680 in March 2017, leading children as young as nine to go missing after being placed in unfamiliar areas.

Data obtained by the Guardian shows the number of missing child episodes in Kent went from 2,140 in 2016 to 2,275 a year later. In Knowsley, the number tripled from 111 in 2013-14 to 325 in 2017-18.

Paul Luxmoore, the executive headteacher of the Coastal Academies Trust, said that the children’s care system was market-driven and not in the best interest of young people.

“There are large houses and properties in Thanet [in Kent] that can be sold relatively cheaply, and high unemployment means they can employ workers cheaply … so they can maximise profits and their overheads are low,” he said.

Luxmoore has tried to combat what he described as the “immoral practice” of placing the most vulnerable children in one of the most deprived parts of the UK, where they face potential exploitation.

“There is a growing problem in the area with drug-related gangs and county lines … Our view as headteachers is that looked-after children are not at fault. They are vulnerable,” he added.

Zahawi said: “All decisions relating to a child’s care should be driven by what is best for the child, rather than what is the cheapest option. It is completely unacceptable for local authorities to promote or be seen to seemingly auction children in care, and Ofsted will challenge those who are not meeting statutory duties.

“Authorities must consider the right placement for the child and take into account a number of factors, which includes location. We have set up a residential care leadership board to drive forward improvements in commissioning and share learning and best practice across the sector.”