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Sexual and criminal exploitation of missing looked after children

Published Tuesday, October 22, 2019

A Westminster Hall debate on Sexual and criminal exploitation of looked after children is scheduled for Wednesday 23 October 2019 at 2.30 pm. The Member leading the debate is Ann Coffey MP

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The report of the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults

In September 2019 the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults published No Place at Home, the final report on its inquiry into the risks that face children and young people who go missing from “out of area” care placements.  These risks can include sexual exploitation and recruitment into “county lines” drugs gangs.  The APPG is calling on the Government to introduce an Emergency Action Plan to tackle the issue, in particular by ensuring that councils receive sufficient funding to develop local provision (including children’s homes and foster placements).  The APPG is also calling for the regulation and inspection of semi-independent accommodation.  

Policy on local authority placements and missing children 

When a child is looked after by a local authority, then they are often provided with accommodation  – usually with local authority-approved foster carers; a common alternative is a placement in a children’s home. 

Under statutory guidance issued by the Department for Education (DfE), “local authorities should agree with local police and other partners a protocol for dealing with children who run away or go missing in their area.  Where appropriate, they should also have agreed protocols with neighbouring authorities or administrations” – this is known as the Runaway and Missing From Home and Care protocol.  The protocol covers matters such as actions to locate the missing child, arrangements for reporting the matter to the police, and reporting and recording arrangements for missing children (including children placed in other local authority areas). 

Where a child is provided with local authority accommodation, how far they are placed in terms of distance from their home can depend on the circumstances.  As the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System, Lord Agnew of Oulton, noted in response to a recent PQ:

While children should be placed close to home where this is possible and appropriate, it can often be the right option for a placement further away from home. This might be, for example, when a child requires specialist care that is not always available locally or is at risk of exploitation.

The procedural requirements concerning out of area placements are laid out in the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010.  As the DfE explains in its guidance on care planning:

  • Such placements will require effective planning, engagement and information sharing with the services likely to be responsible for meeting the child’s needs in the future.

The general duties of local authorities towards looked-after children under Section 22 of the Children Act apply to all placements, including those that are out of authority. There are however a number of specific factors that must be taken into account when decisions are made to place the child out of the area of the responsible authority, but still within England and Wales.

These include consideration of access to health services, school support and also safeguarding: “for children vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, children’s services in the [destination] area authority will be an important source of intelligence and information about local arrangements for safeguarding children”. 

In terms of reducing future out of area placements, Lord Agnew said in October 2019:

  • We are providing funding through our £200 million Innovation Programme to increase local authorities’ capacity so fewer children are placed far away from home.

Further information was provided in a separate parliamentary written answer given by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, Luke Hall, although it remains unclear how much of the £200 million funding for the Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme will be specifically allocated to increasing the capacity of local authority’s care accommodation provision (with the intention of reducing out of area placements):

  • Local authorities have a statutory duty to make sure that there is sufficient provision to meet the needs of children in their care. We are supporting local authorities to increase the sufficiency of care placements and ensure that placements meet children’s needs, including investing part of our £200 million children’s social care Innovation Programme into three residential care projects to increase councils’ capacity and improve commissioning practice.

As the DfE explains about the Programme, it was launched:

  • by the Department for Education (DfE) to test innovative ways of supporting vulnerable children and young people, with investment of up to £200m (2014 – 2020). Funding rounds are now closed, but there is much learning and evidence about what works emerging from the 98 projects sup[p]orted by the Programme.

 Criminal exploitation

 Sexual exploitation and involvement in “county lines” are the most commonly cited examples of child criminal exploitation.  In its September 2019 report, the APPG for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults said the evidence submitted to it suggested that children placed out of area are at increased risk of exploitation:

  • Seventy one percent (29) of the police forces that submitted evidence into this inquiry believed that placing children and young people out of area increases their vulnerability to becoming sexually and criminally exploited.
  • Looked after children and young people are known to be at significant risk of being groomed for exploitation, both due to the experiences and situations that lead to them becoming looked after in the first place and due to some factors associated with being in care.
  • It was clear from the evidence that when placement moves take place often new protective factors are not build around them in their new areas.

The APPG suggested that out of area placements carry a “magnified” risk of exploitation compared to local placements, given factors such as loneliness and isolation, lack of familiarity with the area, travelling long distances, disruption to education, and lack of access to services such as healthcare.  It also noted that out of area placements offer criminal networks an opportunity to “expand their reach” by following the children to their new location. 

Government guidance on sexual exploitation and county lines notes that being in care is a vulnerability that might make a child more susceptible to exploitation.  However, the guidance emphasises that “any child, in any community” is potentially at risk.

Any practitioner who thinks a child they are working with may be at risk of criminal exploitation should follow the guidance set out in Working Together to Safeguard Children: A guide to inter-agency working to safeguard and promote the welfare of children (HM Government, July 2018).

Commons Debate packs CDP-2019-0226

Authors: Sally Lipscombe; Tim Jarrett; Maria Lalic; Bess Jap

Topics: Children's social services, Crime, Crimes of violence, Drugs crimes, Sexual offences

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