Unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates ‘catastrophic failure’ of care system, MP

The unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates the “continuing catastrophic failure” of the care system for some youngsters, a Labour MP has warned.

Ann Coffey said children were being placed in care homes out of their local area because there was no choice in provision.

The MP for Stockport raised concerns about the rising number of children located outside their home area and a consequent increase in those going missing and “being at risk of harm from those who would seek to exploit their vulnerability”.

She told MPs the numbers of youngsters going missing from children’s homes outside their area increased by 110% between 2015 and 2017, compared with a 68% rise in those going missing from care homes within their own area.

Ms Coffey said 10,700 children went missing from all care placements in 2017, initiating 60,720 reports, of which 12,200, or one in five, cases were from placements 20 miles (32km) or further from their home address.

Speaking during her Westminster Hall debate on children missing from care homes, she said: “Children who go missing are at risk of coming to harm, and falling prey to grooming by paedophiles for sexual exploitation and by organised crime gangs exploiting them to carry and supply illegal drugs in county lines operations.”

Ms Coffey, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said 54% of all children’s homes were concentrated in just three regions, with nearly a quarter in the North West of England, but only accounting for 18% of the children’s homes population.

She said: “We found that many placement decisions were last-minute, driven by what was available at the time, rather than by the needs of the child, and in some cases driven by cost.

“Children told our inquiry that they felt dumped in children’s homes many miles away from home, which increased their propensity to go missing.”

She added: “The unequal distribution of children’s homes demonstrates the continuing catastrophic failure of the care market for some children. The system seems to be working for the providers but not for the children.”

Responding, Minister for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi said the Government was committed to protecting all looked-after children by giving them a stable, loving environment.

He said he shared Ms Coffey’s concerns, adding: “I fully recognise that placing a child far away from home can break family ties and make it difficult for social workers and other services to provide the support a young person needs … (She) is quite right it does increase the likelihood of them going missing from care.”

Children’s needs, he said, “have to be paramount” and local authorities have a duty to take into account placement area.

He added that circumstances sometimes it the right decision for a local authority to identify a placement outside a youngster’s local area, such as when a child is at risk from sexual exploitation, trafficking or gang violence.

He said: “There is real value in local authorities coming together to fulfil these responsibilities so they can jointly commission and address gaps in provision. That is why we are providing almost £5 million in innovation programme funding to test new commissioning arrangements that bring local authorities and providers together.”

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