Yesterday's report from the Office of the Children's Commissioner makes for difficult reading. It highlights the risks of sexual exploitation faced by a "disproportionate" number of children in care. One can only imagine the experience of being taken into care, into an environment that is meant to provide safety and support, only to be the victim of such abuse.
Last year a powerful ChildLine report revealed just how vulnerable some children in care can be. Those calling ChildLine were five times more likely to consider running away than other children. Experience shows that their low self-esteem can increase their risk of being exploited by sex offenders and other criminals.
These cases starkly demonstrate that whilst care provides a safe environment for the majority of children and young people, there are a vulnerable minority of children who are isolated, who feel ignored by the very people who should be caring for them, and who have no one to turn to for guidance, help or support. We must do more to support and protect these children.
The government has, rightly, announced action to investigate how to improve at the quality of children's homes and tackle the longstanding problem of local authorities placing children hundreds of miles away from their homes in "out of authority placements", often without adequate protection or support.
Urgent action is indeed needed. We must to improve the skills and experience of those working in children's homes. In the recent case of sexual exploitation in Rochdale, a young woman in care went missing 19 times over a number of months with too little action taken to keep her safe from harm. This should not happen to any child. We must ensure that everyone working with children in care is able to identify and take action on the signs of sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse.
Last year nearly 23,000 children were placed outside of their local authority area. These placements should only be used when they are in the child's best interests, to protect them from harm, or provide specialist support. But it is clear that this is not always the case.
The "notification" system for these placements is failing, and too often local authorities are not working together to protect children. The system must change. Children who are placed away from their communities must have a clear plan for how their needs will be met and how they will protected from harm. This plan should set out clear responsibilities for their local authority and other services, including how they will improve information sharing, enabling them to work together to take preventative action to support our children in care.
But whilst the government action is welcome, further reform is needed. The report from the Children's Commissioner identifies that the sexual exploitation of children in care is part of a wider problem and most victims are not in care. No child should suffer this abuse, no matter who they live with. Concerted action to educate and support children and young people, backed by effective local prevention is needed to tackle this problem.
Caring for the most vulnerable children in care requires a wider, more coherent, strategy that improves therapeutic support in care, increases stability and ensures systematic and sustained improvement across the care system.
Children in care can be at greater risk of sexual exploitation as a result of previous experiences of abuse, neglect and domestic violence, and require specific therapy and support. However, too few children receive this support. Despite the high level of need amongst children in care, research in 2010 found that 49% of children with mental health problem were not receiving or accessing a service from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.
Furthermore, the report highlights that "placement in residential care often occurs either following multiple placement breakdowns, or following a child's late arrival into care with longstanding unrecognised problems". It highlights that 29% of children in residential care have had at least five previous placements. This instability is devastating for children and young people; it hinders their ability to develop effective relationships and reduces the effectiveness of care, increasing the risks that these children face. It must be addressed.
For now the spotlight is focused on this issue, but before it moves on we mustn't miss the opportunity to transform our wider support for children and young people in care, ensuring that we protect all vulnerable children. Momentum is building through the Government's work on adoption, but we need to set out how we will improve the lives of all children in care - we need to move the debate on from the 3000 or so children who are adopted, to the 90,000 in care. It may appear to be a difficult task, but it is clearly a task worth doing to give these children and young people the support they deserve.
As one tearful girl who called ChildLine said, "I just want a family. I just want to be loved". Surely that's not too much to ask.
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