Current care system ‘unfit for purpose’ says former Children’s Commissioner

Anne Longfield, now Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, says recent high-profile cases show that the social care system is stretched to its limit.

05/01/22

Current care system ‘unfit for purpose’ says former Children’s Commissioner

The former Children’s Commissioner has warned that the current care system is unfit for purpose, saying that the system is ‘handing over’ some children to criminals and abusers by moving them away from their families and communities.

Longfield says that children in care are moved too frequently from placement to placement and continually placed in accommodation that puts them at risk of harm, such as alongside adults and those involved with drugs and crime.

In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1% rise on the year before and the highest on record. Social services' caseloads are therefore increasing, alongside the costs of care, as 10-15-year-olds become the fastest growing group of children entering care and 16-and-17-year-olds with acute needs now make up 23% of children in care. With the average costs of care for many of these children at £200,000 per year, the cost of crisis care is escalating, leaving funds available for early intervention and prevention reduced year on year.

“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,” Longfield said.

“We also know this is putting an enormous strain on the whole children's social care system,” Longfield added, pointing to the recent horrific murders of two young children – Star Hobson and Arthur Labinjo-Hughes – which she says show the “tragic consequence of a child protection system stretched to its absolute limit.”

The comments come as The Commission on Young Lives, which launched in September 2021 and is hosted by the Oasis Charitable Trust, publishes its report ‘Out of Harm's Way: A new care system to protect vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation and crime', the first in a year-long series of reports into teenagers at risk.

Alongside the report, the Commission has published data from 22 boroughs in London, showing how hundreds of children in care in London are being placed 'out of borough' and into semi-independent accommodation, which Longfield says is often unregulated, unsuitable and a magnet for criminal and sexual exploiters.

Of the London boroughs included in the data, there were at least 4,340 children in care who spent some or all of their time in a placement out of their local borough, with at least 1,516 spending some or all of their time in placements outside of Greater London.

The Commission's report also reveals how the care system is failing some Black boys, with 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 Black boys going into care rises. The Commission also heard evidence that Black boys, who are already disproportionately affected by gang criminal exploitation, are often receiving different services, including police responses, and how Black teenage boys are less likely to be seen as victims and more likely to be viewed as offenders.

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. The issue of the disproportionate numbers of BAME children, and particularly Black young people, not just in the justice system but in every part of the social care landscape was raised throughout evidence sessions, suggesting that there is systemic racial bias in the system.

The report argues that the current care system was largely designed for small children and 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 teens. It makes a series of recommendations to Government, aimed at improving the children's social care system and keeping teenagers safe from county lines, drug gangs and criminal exploitation.

The Commission is now calling on the Government to establish a 'Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk' ministerial taskforce, similar to the now-defunct Serious Violence Taskforce established by the previous Prime Minister. It is also demanding that the Department for Education guarantee teenagers are not placed in inappropriate care placements, and bans the use of unregulated accommodation for all under 18s in care.

"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,” Longfield said.

“Resetting children's social care in this new offer for teenagers will require determined action and some funding, but it is clear there are huge benefits not only to those vulnerable young people who need protection, but also to the public purse.”

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