02/01/2014 09:00 GMT | Updated 01/03/2014 05:59 GMT

Missing Children, Missing Care and Missing Questions: Why Are Children in Care Being Failed?

We need a debate about whether it is morally acceptable to profit from the social care of vulnerable children. About how palatable the commoditisation of care is. About how appropriate it is to have a 'market' in housing children with multiple needs...

The Christmas season is a time for spreading good cheer and celebrating with family and friends. But not everyone has been celebrating this Christmas in loving homes. Around 5000 of the nation's most vulnerable children are spending the festive season in children's homes, many of which provide poor levels of care. Ofsted inspections have found that 28 per cent of children's homes are below a good standard, while 63 privately run homes are in the worst 'inadequate' category. Many residential homes are located in dangerous and deprived areas unsafe for children, including the worst crime hotspots, many known for sex work.

Concern about the adequacy of safeguarding arrangements for children in care homes led to the Government launching a public consultation this summer on how to strengthen the protection of these children. The consultation closed in September. The Government stated it would respond to the consultation 'later in the year'. As we move into the final week of 2013 the Government has yet to publish its response. With children across the country exposed to significant levels of vulnerability and risk, a response from the Government is urgent.

The public - and above all the affected children - are entitled to answers about how the Government has resolved to improve the safeguarding of some of the most vulnerable children in the country. Moreover, welcome as the consultation is, it leaves unanswered a number of fundamental questions - missing questions about the kind of children's home provision we as a nation want for neglected children.

Missing children and missing care

Figures from the UK Missing Persons Bureau indicate that each year 10,000 children go missing from care. And once they venture beyond the care system the dangers they face rapidly intensify. As the NSCPCC states, they are at risk of being exposed to alcohol, drugs, criminal victimisation and sexual abuse. Only this summer the harrowing Oxford sex ring case that concluded at the Old Bailey vividly illustrated the high risk of serious sexual exploitation children in care face from predatory gangs. But who are these children we've placed in residential care?

Around one half of them have been taken into the care of the state because of a history of trauma, neglect or abuse. Typically the state has intervened because they were at risk within their birth family. They form around 9 per cent of all the children in care and often are over 14 years old (a notoriously difficult age) and suffering from behavioural problems. As the Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz puts it, if the state places a child in care, it has a duty to provide better protection than the parents did. So what have we done? What kind of care do children's homes give them?

Figures from the Personal Social Services Research Unit reveal that the annual cost of placement in a private children's home is £4000 per week, whereas local authority care costs £3000, by comparison a foster care placement costs £637. Therefore if £200,000 a year or more per child is being paid to private contractors, it is extraordinary that over a quarter of private sector homes cannot provide a good level of care. Yet with the significant levels of funding on offer to the private sector, children's homes can provide outstanding care. Indeed, 15 per cent of private sector homes have been ranked as outstanding. So how have we got to this point?

The landscape of social care provision has fundamentally changed over the last 20 years. When the first statistics on children's homes were published in 1997 by the Department of Health, a large majority of homes, 68 per cent, were run by local authorities. Since then the picture has completely reversed. The private sector share has more than doubled, with 78 per cent of homes now being run by the non-statutory sector. We have a burgeoning and buoyant 'market' in the provision of care for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. It is big business with the lure of big profits.

The latest CIPFA Children's Services Actuals figures (for 2011/12) show that the expenditure on residential care for children was £1 billion. Care has been commoditised and monetised. This is in keeping with the creeping neoliberalisation of public services such as private prisons, parts of the police force and other vital social services with massive transnational corporations such as G4S and SERCO bidding for lucrative governmental contracts.

Annually the private sector childcare 'market' is worth hundreds of millions of pounds. As former Children's Minister Tim Loughton MP noted, this has resulted in an 'increasing move into the market by private equity funds.' Advanced Childcare Limited, Britain's largest provider of children's homes, is owned by a US private equity firm GI Partners. One third of its 130 homes in England are below a good standard. The private equity-owned Castlecare, which runs 30 children's homes, infamously charged £378,000 to care for one child in 2009.

As Loughton observed, there are concerns of a 'disproportionate' involvement by private equity firms and it is necessary to examine whether they are participating for the right reasons. It was a privatised children's home owned by private equity firm 3i that was at the centre of the Rochdale child sex scandal. Before verdicts were returned in the sex ring trial, it was sold on. So has privatisation been in the best interests of the child? Does child protection remain sufficiently prioritised over profit?

Take the question of location. Reports by the Office of the Children's Commissioner and the Expert Group on Children's Homes Quality have voiced serious concerns about care homes being located in unsafe locations. By unsafe they refer to areas associated with high crime and sex work. Over 50 per cent of children's homes are located in deprived areas, and 22 per cent are located in the most deprived areas in the country.

But why are so many homes concentrated in dangerous and disadvantaged localities? Why is it thought appropriate to house already vulnerable children there? And why is there what Ann Coffey MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children, calls an 'export trade' in children in care, moving children around the country? This 'decanting' of children is a practice that Education Secretary Michael Gove has called 'indefensible'. Why, as Coffey states, are some providers 'very aggressively' advertising to recruit the most damaged children? The answer to all this, while complex and multifaceted, is beyond doubt significantly influenced by money.

Marginal areas mean lower property prices, lower local salaries, higher profits for private companies - and higher risks to children in care. The statistics on regional distribution are revealing. Of children's homes, 6 per cent are in London, while 42 per cent are located in the North West and West Midlands. Concerns have been expressed by the Office of the Children's Commissioner about the placement of children well away from the areas they hail from. Some of the time it's necessary for the safety of the child. But at others it's due to the location of the homes in what the Children's Society call 'run-down' areas - a consequence of profit maximisation.

At present there is no requirement for the manager of a children's home to provide an assessment of the risks children face in the locality. The Government is consulting about imposing such an obligation. Unquestionably, amending existing regulations to require such an assessment is to be welcomed. But there also needs to be a proper investigation into why there is a proliferation of homes in dangerous and deprived areas in the first place.

Missing questions

In the very last sentence of the Department for Education's Data Pack on Children's Homes in England, the Government states that it is exploring how to find 'improvements in the market'. The tacit assumption is that the solution will come through the market. But why is it thought this is the answer?

We need to ask whether, with almost 80 per cent of residential homes not being in community hands, we have the right balance between the private and public sector. We need to know whether the extra £50,000 a year per child it costs to house children with private contractors is money well spent. We need to know what added value the private sector brings to the lives of children in care - and to the public interest.

We need a debate about whether it is morally acceptable to profit from the social care of vulnerable children. About how palatable the commoditisation of care is. About how appropriate it is to have a 'market' in housing children with multiple needs. If profits are being taken out of the system, we need to consider carefully whether they might better be reinvested. Reinvested to create a better standard of care for children, by finding accommodation in safer locations and hiring better qualified staff.

We need a forthright debate about the kind of residential home provision we as a nation want - and the children we send there deserve. The current Children's Minister Edward Timpson MP states that we should expect the same standard of care as 'we would want for our own children.' But is that what we have?

These are largely forgotten children. Children who sometimes go physically missing. Children who can slip between the bureaucratic gaps in the complex web of state and market power. Often they are unwanted or have been unimaginably maltreated; many are damaged and difficult. They present a formidable challenge. But not one beyond the wit and determined will of one of the world's top 10 richest nations.

They are children with tremendous needs. But they are still children. Lest we forget, still children. The Children's Act 1989 requires that the best interests of the child must come first. By this critical legal yardstick, why are so many children in care being failed?