Up to 10,000 children, many under the age of five, are living with private foster parents who are unknown or unchecked by social services, the Department of Health has warned.
The unsupervised arrangements, which often involve foreign children being sent to Britain by their birth parents, have raised fears of a repeat of the tragic case of Anna Climbie, who was murdered by her carers. Anna, eight, died of multiple organ failure, malnutrition and neglect after months of appalling abuse at the hands of her aunt and her aunt's boyfriend in north London.
Her parents, from the Ivory Coast, had placed Anna in the care of her aunt so she could have a better education and standard of living in England. After her death, 128 injuries were found on her body.
Now teachers, doctors and social workers are being urged to double-check that children who live with private foster carers are properly vetted by local authorities.
About 10,000 children under the age of 16 are estimated to live with private foster parents, who are less rigorously regulated than childminders or conventional foster parents.
At least 60 per cent of the children come from Nigeria or other West African countries. Others are Chinese, foreign- language students or the children of British families who have gone abroad.
Although private carers are supposed to be approved by social services, the Department of Health says that more than 50 per cent fail to notify local authorities. Councils also consider private fostering to be a "low priority and are not devoting sufficient effort to identifying and inspecting private foster placements", the department says.
Experts say the carers tend to be on low incomes or unemployed. Many are very wary of official involvement and do not want to disclose they are earning an income. Some have been rejected as foster parents in the past or had their own children removed from them.
Denise Platt, director of the Social Services Inspectorate, said: "Research points to little or no knowledge or apparent concern about the attachment or development needs of the children they care for. There is also a lack of awareness about child protection, in the carer's family and around visitors, which has resulted in examples of physical, sexual and emotional abuse."
The children are even more vulnerable because their natural parents are often a long way away or in prison or have failed to keep up payments. Sometimes foster parents move house without telling the natural family and the children simply "disappear". Sir William, a former chief inspector of social services, has warned that a number of privately fostered children "are likely to be seriously at risk".
He has called for much stricter controls so that carers who fail to register would be committing a criminal offence, as would birth parents if they left children with unregistered families. His recommendations are backed by the British Agencies for Fostering and Adoption.
The Department of Health has so far declined to tighten the existing regulations. But it is starting a campaign to increase the rate of notifications.Reuse content