Fail children in care at your peril

There should be no mercy for agencies that fall short

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In the sickening Oxford sex abuse case we heard that men groomed and abused vulnerable girls "under the noses" of the authorities who showed an "almost wilful blindness". The six victims had all been in care and were aged between 11 and 15 when the abuse took place. Victims repeatedly went missing, during which time they came into contact with their abusers. Three of the girls were reported missing from residential care on 254 occasions; one went missing 126 times in 15 months. Their nightmare torture and rape happened when they were supposedly in the safe-keeping of the local authority.

Life sentences sent out a strong message to abusers that in future they will be shown no mercy, and the police officer who led the inquiry, warned them: "Be under no doubt we are coming for you." This should apply to agencies that do not do their jobs properly.

When young people go into care because of serious neglect or abuse at home – the main reason – we expect them to get the support they need to overcome early traumatic experiences and flourish into successful, happy adults. But what I learnt last year through the parliamentary inquiry into children missing from care, supported by the Children's Society and the Who Cares? Trust – was that the care system was inadequate. Not only were local authorities failing children by moving them between care homes unable to meet their complex needs, they also placed children in areas that were not safe. This contributed to the estimated 10,000 a year who go missing from care in England.

It was shocking to hear of children placed many miles away from their neighbourhood and established support networks, sent to children's homes targeted by sexual predators seeking to exploit the vulnerability of children living there. Too many of these predators succeeded while professionals and agencies turned a blind eye. Children who went missing were regularly dismissed as a nuisance. Victims told us that they could not always understand the seriousness of things being done to them. Going missing from care was their cry for help, but a cry that went unheard.

This is unforgivable because all agencies know there is a strong link between going missing and the risk of sexual exploitation. The inquiry report called on the Government to improve the collection and sharing of data about children going missing from care, reduce the number of out-of-area placements, improve support and place the child's experiences at the centre of the system to enable professionals to identify children at risk earlier.

Last week, a year on from the inquiry, the Government published a number of proposals. These include better scrutiny of placements, data sharing on missing children and a multi-agency response, improved care planning, and better qualifications. But success rests at local level with councils, local safeguarding children's boards, the police, children's home staff, social workers and health workers.

How local authorities adopt these proposals will determine whether vulnerable children are protected. Next we need robust inspections by Ofsted on how local agencies safeguard children, particularly children who go missing.

Last year, a series of Freedom of Information requests by the Children's Society found that many local authorities were already seriously failing to follow statutory guidance for missing children in a number of areas. For no matter how well-intentioned reform is, without proper oversight and accountability, missing children and children in care will continue to be let down.

Only the combination of strong central government leadership with local commitment to act now to protect children in care can yield a care system fit for purpose. No mercy should be shown to those agencies who fail.

Ann Coffey MP chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults

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