Social care system ‘unfit for purpose’, says England's former children’s commissioner

Rachel Musekiwa feels like one of the lucky ones, having spent most of her childhood in care and seeing others exploited, as Correspondent Rebecca Barry reports

The social care system is not fit for purpose and is “handing some children over” to criminal gangs, a damning new report has found.

The report from the Commission on Young Lives found the children’s care system is taking teenagers into care to safeguard them from county lines and criminal exploitation, only to put them at risk of more serious harm.

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

Some children who go into care are “more likely to experience instability through multiple placement moves and changes in social worker”, while in some cases they are moved into “completely unsuitable” accommodation, the report said.

What did the report find?

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

Criminal gangs have even been known to be tipped off from within local authorities when vulnerable teenagers are moved into unregulated accommodation, it said.

It found that excessive reliance on limited numbers of residential places, a failure to identify children at risk of exploitation early enough, a broken children’s home market and cuts to funding for intervention programmes were putting vulnerable young people at risk.

Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and the former children’s commissioner, told ITV News shortages of places was particularly hard felt in London and the south east.

"Despite the fact there will be a high number of young people at risk, there are hardly any places for those teenagers," she said.

"What that means is that London teenagers in care will often be sent to different parts of the country".

'There's a chronic shortage of provision and places' warns Anne Longfield

Who are the children and young people in care?

The report found that the care population is getting older.

Data analysis published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory revealed that between 2011/12 and 2019/20 the number of 16-year-olds entering care rose by 285%.

In total, 16 and 17-year-olds now make up 23% of those in care as of March 2021.

The report said these rising numbers of older children in the system demonstrate “a failure of prevention”.

In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1% rise on the year before.

The report added that it is particularly concerned by “racial biases in the system which put Black boys at risk of harm”.

Black children are 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 commission published Freedom of Information data showing that more boys were taken into care than girls in London boroughs, while 1,341 of those taken into care were aged over 12 and 655 were over the age of 16, demonstrating the increasing proportion of older children making up the care system cohort.

Data collected from London boroughs showed hundreds of children are being placed outside of their local borough in semi-independent accommodation.

Hundreds of children are being placed outside of their local borough in semi-independent accommodation in London.

In 2021, at least 1,932 children in care in London were living in semi-independent accommodation, while at least 4,340 children in care in London boroughs spent some or all of their time in a placement outside of their local borough.

It found 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.

What action needs to be taken?

The report makes a series of recommendations.

It calls on the government to set up a Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk ministerial task force, and says the Department for Education should establish a Teenager in Care package of support including the financing of new local community children’s homes.

Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and the former children’s commissioner, told ITV News "the care system just wasn't set up" for teenagers.

"It was set up for a completely different profile of children, very young children who were often experiencing abuse or neglect at home and then would live with foster families.

"These are older children," she said. "They've experienced some of the horrors that most of us hope we would never experience in life, even before they get there."

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 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 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 £259 million.”

Imran Hussain, Action for Children Director of Policy and Campaigns says: “This report reinforces something our services see every day – that many of the young people who most need our help are being let down as government cuts to council budgets have gone too far.

“We know that children who have been in care are far more likely to have poor outcomes compared to their peers, with their mental health and chance of having a stable home or family life as an adult all adversely affected.

"Early intervention is hugely important to be able to do as much as we can to enhance their life chances.

“As a charity we have long been calling for a comprehensive programme of investment in Family Hubs, to provide early help for families before things reach crisis stage.

"Also key is providing stability and working to maintain relationships with the important people in looked-after children and young people’s lives – whether birth family, former carers, social workers or favourite teachers.

"This is essential if these young people are to feel safe, in control and know they have the support they need.”