An independent investigation is needed into England’s children’s homes which are failing to manage and protect youngsters who run away or go missing, MPs and peers have said.
The report by parliamentarians also called for urgent action to prevent children being sent to live in areas up to hundreds of miles from their family, which is believed to be a major factor in causing some of them to run away.
Labour MP Ann Coffey, chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for runaway and missing children and adults, said the issue of children who go missing from care was a “scandal”.
As well as the investigation and urgent action on “out of borough placements”, the joint report by two APPGs calls for a scorecard system to rate local authorities, an end to barriers which prevent police knowing the location of children’s homes and a new system for reporting runaways from care.
The report recommends that more weighting should be given to the management of missing incidents in Ofsted’s inspections.
The inquiry also highlights a lack of training for professionals. One practitioner told the inquiry: “You can have someone looking after a young person who, the day before, their experience may have been working at a deli counter in Asda.”
The joint report by Ms Coffey’s group and the APPG for looked after children and care leavers follows the jailing of a sex abuse ring in Rochdale which preyed on vulnerable girls.
Only one of the girls was in care at the time of the abuse but all were said to have been known to social services at some point in their childhood.
Ms Coffey said: “There is a scandal going on in England involving children missing from care and until recent cases of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale and other places put the spotlight on this issue, it was pretty much going unnoticed.
“This inquiry has revealed the widespread concern that what we have in place at the moment falls dramatically short of what is needed to protect some of society’s most vulnerable children.
“We know that dangerous predators are exploiting large gaps in the system and targeting children.
“Our inquiry has demonstrated how the system is far from fit for purpose and needs an urgent rethink to address these failings.”
The Earl of Listowel, vice chairman of the APPG for looked after children and care leavers, said: “The inquiry recognises that there are examples of excellent children’s homes and that for some children this is sometimes the most appropriate option.
“But the great variability of standards and the generally very low level of qualifications of staff need urgent remedy.
“As the recent Rochdale case has clearly demonstrated, it is essential that no stone is left unturned when it comes to the care and protection of some of this country’s most vulnerable children.”
There are 65,520 children in local authority care in England and an estimated 100,000 children run away either from care or their own homes each year.
An Ofsted spokesman said: “Ofsted welcomes this thoughtful and comprehensive report. There is no doubt that the system is currently failing some very vulnerable children.
“In its inspections of children’s homes, Ofsted regards the issue of missing children as one of the main indicators of the quality of care.
“The inquiry rightly highlights the barriers which prevent us sharing information about the location of children’s homes with local police forces.
“The regulations in force specifically prohibit us from sharing that information with anybody except local councils. We agree that this is something that the Government needs to consider changing.”
Matthew Reed, chief executive of charity The Children’s Society, said: “It is unacceptable that some of this country’s most vulnerable children are being completely let down by the very systems that should be there to protect them from these shocking crimes.
“Our own research shows that a quarter of the 100,000 children who run away from care or home each year are at serious risk of harm.
“It is critical that all areas of the country have a safety net in place, so that every time a child goes missing from care they are protected from sexual exploitation, trafficking and other shocking crimes.”
Children’s Minister Tim Loughton said: “This report goes right to the heart of some serious weaknesses in the current system, which leave far too many of the most vulnerable children in society exposed to harm and danger.
“It is completely unacceptable that existing rules are simply being ignored and that, frankly, some local authorities and children’s homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper ‘parent’. We are looking in detail at all the issues raised and will set out urgent next steps in the coming weeks.”
Barnardo’s chief executive, Anne Marie Carrie, said: “We are concerned that the care system risks failing some of our most vulnerable children by inadequately protecting them from being preyed upon by abusers.
“Barnardo’s is piloting a ground breaking new scheme with specially trained and highly supported foster carers to offer alternative safe accommodation to victims of sexual exploitation and trafficking.
“Other, more extreme alternatives such as locking children up in secure accommodation for their own protection should only ever be used as a last resort, as this risks further harm by effectively punishing the victim.”