'We failed to protect vulnerable children in the past, but attitudes are changing'


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The Independent Online

The sorts of attitudes that have been extremely troubling and have undoubtedly contributed to the failures to protect children are seen now as unacceptable: that children are blamed for running away; they are seen as just difficult; sometimes it is just a relief to everybody when they are gone.

A national register, or a way of sharing information across forces, would help. Each police force is pretty much an island unto itself, and that gets in the way of information sharing. There is, of course, the charity Missing People, and they will keep that register but they only know what they know.

Children go absent and they might be anywhere in the country, so a way of sharing the information or having a national database is certainly something that needs to be looked at very seriously.

We have concerns about the differential reporting rates in relation to children who go missing. One of the things we have picked up in the first year of our inquiry is that the rates of reporting on children from black and minority ethnic communities and families are often very much lower than they are from white communities and families.

The rate of reported missing children from BME families does not reflect the reality and there seem to be a number of reasons for that. One is that in particular parts of our BME communities, the distrust of the police may lead to a lower reporting rate.

The other theory concerns when children are running away because they are at threat of forced marriage or "honour-based" violence or female genital mutilation. The families there don't report them because of the shame factors and because they want to keep knowledge of the child's missing status within the family and within the community; actually, they don't want the child to be found by anybody else.

I would like to see pressure brought to bear on children's homes to make sure that, as part of the inspection regime, the care they provide in making sure children are safe when they go out and when they come back is looked at.

Residential care homes in particular, where children are at very high risk, need to be extremely proactive in terms of knowing where children are. They need to do what any good parent would do, so if your child goes out at night you go and fetch them.

Any child who goes missing from a children's home should have a return interview with somebody they trust, and it shouldn't be done on the basis that they are being told off. They will talk to people about what's worrying them only if there's somebody there who they feel is really listening to them and in whom they can place proper trust.

But I think we are at an early change of a big shift in perceptions, attitudes and practice. That's the encouraging sign.

Sue Berelowitz is deputy children's commissioner for England, and is leading the inquiry into the sexual exploitation of children by gangs and groups