Social care system ‘handing some children over’ to gangs, report warns - as government rolls out ‘urgent reforms’

The Commission on Young Lives found young people are not being safeguarded in care, leaving them open to serious criminal exploitation

A report from the Commission on Young Lives has determined that a broken care system in England is “handing some children over” to criminal gangs.

Highlighting how the social care system is no longer fit for purpose, the report suggested a growing number of teens are being taken into care for safeguarding but instead being left at greater risk of more serious criminal exploitation.

It said the care system in place to support vulnerable teenagers is “infuriatingly inadequate” and has been designed with younger children in mind.

The report added that statistical analysis proved child services are out of touch with an older average service user age, suggesting the system demonstrates “a failure of prevention”

‘Completely unsuitable’

It also found that the care population is getting older, with data by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory revealing that between 2011/12 and 2019/20 the number of 16-year-olds entering care rose by 285%.

As of March 2021, 16 and 17-year-olds now made up nearly a quarter of those in care.

As of March, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1 percent rise on the year before.

The report suggested young people are being taken into unstable care environments as a result of being removed from their parents or guardians, some are “more likely to experience instability through multiple placement moves and changes in social worker”.

For other youngsters, they are moved into “completely unsuitable” accommodation, according to the commission.

It found many teenagers in crisis are moved away from their local area and support networks, sometimes to areas with high levels of crime.

Vulnerable teens indebted to criminals

According to the report, criminal gangs have in some cases been tipped off from within local authorities when vulnerable teenagers are moved into unregulated accommodation.

Among the biggest risk factors, it found overreliance on limited residential placements, a lack of early intervention for at-risk children, a broken children’s home market and cuts to funding for intervention programmes had resulted in the heightened risk of exploitation.

The commission also shared FOI data from London boroughs which shows that in 2021, thousands of youngsters were placed into semi-independent accommodation or placed outside their local borough.

The report added that criminal gangs targeting vulnerable teenagers operate a “serious and ruthless” business, with children given responsibilities by the gang and then “systematically robbed”, leaving them indebted to criminals and unable to escape.

‘System putting kids in even greater danger’

It said that the shift in perception over child victims of abuse in Rotherham needs to be considered for all genders and services had to consider other criminal exploitation.

The report found boys were at highest risk, especially young black teenagers.

In addition to being at greater risk of criminality, the number of black children in care who were adopted dropped by 50% between 2015 and 2019.

The report concluded by recommending the Government sets up a Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk ministerial task force, headed by the Department for Education.

Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and the former children’s commissioner, 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.”

‘Urgently reforming to address growing pressures’

A Department for Education spokesperson responded to the urge for better funded child services and new child care homes, saying: “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 taskforces, backed by £45 million, 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 introducing national standards and new oversight from Ofsted for supported accommodation, and maintaining and increasing the number of places in these homes backed by £259 million.”