Children’s social care system ‘unfit for purpose’ in England

More damning evidence about the dangers to children in “care” of the “corporate parent”.

Former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield says it often puts vulnerable teenagers in greater danger.

Helen Pidd Wed 29 Dec 2021 The Guardian

The children’s social care system in England is unfit for purpose and often puts vulnerable teenagers in greater danger, according to the former children’s commissioner.

Anne Longfield now runs the Commission on Young Lives, which warns in a report that the children’s social care system is “handing over” some vulnerable teenagers to criminals and abusers by moving them “out of area” to live in dangerous unregulated accommodation that is sometimes targeted by criminals.

In London, where there is a particular shortage of care places for teenagers, thousands of children in the past year have been placed outside their local borough, according to data from 22 out of 32 London boroughs gathered via freedom of information (FoI) requests.

At least 1,516 looked-after children from London spent some or all of their time in placements outside the capital in 2020-21, the data shows.

In addition, almost 2,000 looked-after children in London were living in semi-independent accommodation, which is often unregulated, unsuitable and, according to the commission, “a magnet for criminal and sexual exploiters”.

These figures are a low estimate and are likely to be much higher across London given some boroughs with the largest numbers of children in care did not respond to the FoI request.

Out of Harm’s Way, the first of the commission’s series of reports into teenagers at risk, calls for a ban on the use of unregulated accommodation for under-18s in care; the re-establishment of the government’s defunct serious violence taskforce; a new “teenager in need’ support form; and long-term funding for violence reduction units and young adder (addiction, diversion, disruption, enforcement, recovery) programmes to reduce the numbers of teenagers at risk of exploitation.

The report shows how an overreliance on a limited number of residential places where demand significantly outstrips supply, inadequate early identification of those children at risk of exploitation, cuts to funding for early intervention programmes, outdated fostering models, a broken children’s home “market” and the frequent criminalisation of children in the care system is allowing too many children in care to fall into danger.

The report argues that a care system that was largely designed for small children is struggling to adapt to the needs of older children, including operating inflexible hours and work practices that are not suited to the often chaotic lives of vulnerable teenagers.

The commission’s report also reveals how the care system is failing some black boys. Evidence provided to the commission describes how black boys in care are more likely to go on and enter the youth justice system, and how this problem is worsening as the number of those going into care rises.

Black children are already more likely to be in care compared with their share of the under-18 population, while the number of black children in care who were adopted dropped by 50% between 2015 and 2019.

Longfield, the commission’s chair, said: “A children’s social care system that is supposed to protect vulnerable teenagers is frequently putting them in even greater danger. Often, we may as well be handing over children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals. It is unfit for purpose.

“We know the number of vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation entering the care system is becoming older, with more complex and expensive needs, and growing. We also know this is putting an enormous strain on the whole children’s social care system. The recent horrific murders of two young children show the tragic consequence of a child protection system stretched to its absolute limit.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise many vulnerable young people face new and growing risks, which is why we are providing targeted support through our specialist alternative provision and SAFE [Support, Attend, Fulfil, Exceed] taskforces, backed by £45m, to keep these young people engaged in their education and to prevent them becoming involved in criminal activity.

“While the independent review of children’s social care continues, we are urgently reforming the system to address growing pressures. This includes by introducing national standards and new oversight from Ofsted for supported accommodation, and maintaining and increasing the number of places in these homes backed by £259m.”