Minister: care homes ‘like going from frying pan into the fire’ for abused children

Britain’s most vulnerable children are routinely sent to live in care homes on the same street as hostels for sex offenders and violent criminals, the Children’s Minister disclosed last night.

Tim Loughton launched a withering attack on social services chiefs and the regulator, Ofsted, for allowing alarming numbers of abuse victims to be sent “from the frying pan into the fire”.

He disclosed that police evidence he had seen showed a raft of privately run homes “clustered” in a handful of down-at-heel areas alongside bail hostels and known paedophiles, often hundreds of miles away from their friends and family.

He pledged to summon the heads of the 10 worst offending social services departments to “look them in the eye” and ask them: “Would you send your child to live in an area like that?”

The chair of an influential group of MPs added that the current system of placing vulnerable youngsters far from home had become like an “export trade in children between the English regions” providing a ready supply of victims for abuse.

Mr Loughton also disclosed that the number of failing care homes was dramatically higher than previously thought, after a series of new tougher inspections carried out after the Rochdale grooming scandal.

Sources indicated that more than 200 care homes are likely to be failed when the inspections are completed, compared with just two per cent before.

In a thinly veiled attack on Ofsted Mr Loughton said the true number was clearly far higher than “we were previously led to believe.”

He also hit out at an “unjustifiable” culture of secrecy around care homes, which meant that police and local councils are barred from sharing information even about the location of care homes.

And he dismissed official figures suggesting that the number of children going missing from homes is only a fraction of police estimates as “nonsense”.

He was speaking a the preliminary findings of a report on sexual exploitation by the Deputy Children’s Commissioner Sue Berelowitz were published.

Miss Berelowitz, who has been interviewing hundreds of victims, found that in a few cases children as young as four have been targeted while girls as young as 10 are being bussed across towns to be abused.

In a wide-ranging report she said that many of the perpetrators were as young as 12, often acting as part of gangs, while the victims were themselves were often used to “recruit” other victims.

She said that despite years of experience in the field she had been taken aback by the “scale of violence and sadism” she was encountering.

“The casual nature with which they engage in this type of violent abuse is really quite chilling,” she added.

“It takes place in cars, in taxis, in people’s homes, in rented accommodation, in bus stations, in parks, in open spaces alongside canals in open corridors of flats sometimes, in hotels in schools almost in any place I’m afraid.”

Her report calls for a complete ban on children’s homes being located in “high risk areas”.

Almost half of the 5,000 children in homes in England are living outside their own area but because of restrictions on sharing information, neither socials services or police are able to routinely check where the homes are.

Mr Loughton disclosed that a large number of the 1,810 homes – which charge around £200,000 a year per child – are sited in a handful of seaside towns where property prices are lower.

They include his own constituency of Worthing, East Sussex; Margate, Kent and Blackpool as well as cities such as Rochdale, and parts of the West Midlands.

He told how Kent Police had drawn up a “heat map” of two wards with coloured dots showing where children in care where living as well as prolific criminals, sex offenders and those on licence.

“It is a bit of a minefield of all those things – often in the same street,” he said.

“I’m very concerned that we are packing too many of our children off to distant resorts.”

Good care inside homes was not enough, he said.

“What I’m concerned about is what happens when that child walks out of the front door and all of a sudden finds him or herself in an area where there is a proliferation of people who may want to harm that child.

“They are pushed from pillar to post around the system, they are now pushed out of sight and out of mind as well.”

But he blamed the decision to end children to unsuitable areas on cost considerations and a contracting system which sent children on placements depending on “spot” prices.

He also vowed to keep a close eye on the growth of private equity firms moving into the market.

Ann Coffey, chair of the All party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children, who published a hard-hitting report on care homes last month, said:“The level of these out of area placements has become so serious that it is effectively becoming a form of export trade in children between the English regions.”

Enver Solomon, director of policy at the Children’s Society, said: “It has almost been as though these are pieces on a chessboard to be moved around and found a place without decisions taken primarily on what is best for the child”

Debbie Jones, president of Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “There can be good reasons for placing a child away from home, even a long distance away, where they are at risk from family or others in their local community and local authorities must retain this flexibility where it is needed.

“It is important to note that many local authorities are reliant wholly or in part of a market of private providers to supply placements in residential children’s homes.

“This can offer flexibility to meet the needs of individual children, but we believe there needs to be a review of the risks of the dominance of private, profit-making providers on the stability, quality and cost of providing these placements.”

A spokeswoman for Ofsted said: “As an independent inspectorate, we keep all our inspection activity under continuous review. As a result, in April 2012 we further revised the criteria against which inspectors make their judgements, significantly raising the bar.

“The figures showing inspection judgments for the first quarter of 2012/13 will be published in September.

“We are unable to speculate on unpublished data but of course we expect the tougher criteria we have introduced to have a significant impact on the pattern of judgments.”