Social care system for teenagers ‘infuriatingly inadequate’, says former children’s commissioner

The social care system is not fit for purpose and is “handing some children over” to criminal gangs, a report has found.

The report from the Commission on Young Lives found the children’s care system is taking teenagers into care to safeguard them from county lines and criminal exploitation, only to put them at risk of more serious harm.

It said the care system in place to support vulnerable teenagers is “infuriatingly inadequate” and has been designed with younger children in mind.

Some children who go into care are “more likely to experience instability through multiple placement moves and changes in social worker”, while in some cases they are moved into “completely unsuitable” accommodation, the report said.

It found many teenagers in crisis are moved away from their local area and support networks, sometimes to areas with high levels of crime.

Criminal gangs have even been known to be tipped off from within local authorities when vulnerable teenagers are moved into unregulated accommodation, it said.

The report found that excessive reliance on limited numbers of residential places, a failure to identify children at risk of exploitation early enough, a broken children’s home market and cuts to funding for intervention programmes were putting vulnerable young people at risk.

It also found that the care population is getting older, with data analysis published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory revealing that between 2011/12 and 2019/20 the number of 16-year-olds entering care rose by 285%.

In total, 16 and 17-year-olds now make up 23% of those in care as of March 2021.

The report said these rising numbers of older children in the system demonstrate “a failure of prevention”.

In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England, a 1% rise on the year before.

The commission has also published FOI data alongside the report collected from London boroughs which shows that hundreds of children are being placed outside of their local borough in semi-independent accommodation.

In 2021, at least 1,932 children in care in London were living in semi-independent accommodation, while at least 4,340 children in care in London boroughs spent some or all of their time in a placement outside of their local borough.

The FOI data shows that more boys were taken into care than girls in London boroughs, while 1,341 of those taken into care were aged over 12 and 655 were over the age of 16, demonstrating the increasing proportion of older children making up the care system cohort.

It found that criminal gangs targeting vulnerable teenagers operate a “serious and ruthless” business, with children given responsibilities by the gang and then “systematically robbed”, leaving them indebted to criminals and unable to escape.

It added that the shift in perception over child victims of abuse in Rotherham needs to take place for boys and children of any gender exploited by organised criminal gangs.

The report added that it is particularly concerned by “racial biases in the system which put Black boys at risk of harm”.

Black children are more likely to be in care compared with their share of the under-18 population, while the number of black children in care who were adopted dropped by 50% between 2015 and 2019.

The report makes a series of recommendations, calling on the Government to set up a Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk ministerial task force, and says the Department for Education should establish a Teenager in Care package of support including the financing of new local community children’s homes.

Anne Longfield (pictured), chair of the Commission on Young Lives and the former children’s commissioner, said: “A children’s social care system that is supposed to protect vulnerable teenagers is frequently putting them in even greater danger. Often, we may as well be handing over children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals. It is unfit for purpose.

“We know the number of vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation entering the care system is becoming older, with more complex and expensive needs, and growing. We also know this is putting an enormous strain on the whole children’s social care system.

“The recent horrific murders of two young children show the tragic consequence of a child protection system stretched to its absolute limit.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We recognise many vulnerable young people face new and growing risks, which is why we are providing targeted support through our specialist alternative provision and SAFE taskforces, backed by £45 million, to keep these young people engaged in their education and to prevent them becoming involved in criminal activity.

“While the independent review of children’s social care continues, we are urgently reforming the system to address growing pressures. This includes by introducing national standards and new oversight from Ofsted for supported accommodation, and maintaining and increasing the number of places in these homes backed by £259 million.”

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2021, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) The Children’s Commissioner.