An inquiry has been launched into the record number of children going missing from care amid fears they are falling prey to ‘county lines’ drugs gangs and paedophiles.
MPs announced the move after new figures revealed a sharp rise in youngsters going missing from care placements away from their home borough.
The Department for Education (DfE) data showed missing children from ‘cross-boundary care’ has more than doubled - from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018 (101%). In other homes, close to the youngsters’ area, the rise was a comparatively small 31%.
MPs say youngsters are being “farmed out” due to a “broken” care system “catastrophically failing” children and leaving them vulnerable to abusers and ‘county lines’ gang-masters.
Independent Group MP Ann Coffey will chair an inquiry by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children And Adults.
Being uprooted from family, friends and social workers leaves children isolated and more likely to flee their placement, the MPs have previously discovered.
They are now concerned children will become “sitting ducks” to be targeted for sexual and criminal exploitation, such as being coerced into selling class A drugs, such as crack cocaine and heroin, in the growing number of ‘county lines’ operations.
Coffey described the new DfE figures as representing “a shocking state of affairs” and slammed an “uneven distribution of children’s homes” across the country as exacerbating the problem.
“It shames us all that thousands of vulnerable children continue to be farmed out to live miles and miles away from home despite a government promise to clampdown on numbers,” she said.
“Isolated and alone without family, friends or local social workers to help protect them, they become sitting ducks for those who wish to prey on them. They are targeted by paedophiles and drugs gangs and can become trapped in a brutal world.
“The children’s homes system is broken. It is catastrophically failing children and young people and is instead working in the interest of private providers.”
MPs will focus on the unique risks faced by young people who go missing from out-of-area placements.
Coffey has written to all 43 police chief constables asking them about any links they have already found between cross-boundary placements and children being targeted for sexual and criminal exploitation, especially ‘county lines’ gangs.
The fresh inquiry comes after the APPG investigated children going missing from care in 2012 and raised the alarm over cross-boundary placements.
The government pledged in 2013 to tackle the number of “sent away” children, but instead it has grown to record levels.
The latest DfE figures show:
64% of all children living in children’s homes now live out of their borough, up from 46% in 2012
a 77% increase in the numbers of children sent to live in children’s homes outside of their area from 2,250 in 2012 to 3,990 in 2018
a 25% increase in all looked after children placed out of their area, which includes foster care, secure units and also children’s homes, from 22,430 in 2012 to 28,050 in 2018
The APPG is also calling for evidence from individuals, organisations and children with experience of the care system.
Sam Royston, director and policy and research at The Children’s Society, said: “Children should only be placed away from their home area if it is in their best interests, but too often this is happening simply because local placements are unavailable.
“We are deeply concerned that the number of children being placed out of their home area rises year on year and that many of them go missing repeatedly. Going missing is an indicator of risk and a cry for help from children.
“By supporting this APPG inquiry we hope we can help identify viable, long-term solutions that will prevent an already vulnerable group of young people from being put at increased risk of harm through placements that should be keeping them safe.”
The government said in 2016 that it would work with the sector to “continue to work towards is ensuring sufficient local provision to accommodate the needs of the children in care”.
It also said it would explore improvements to how care was commissioned, delivered, regulated and inspected to improve outcomes.
In recent days, the DfE has also urged top universities to do more to support care leavers, including providing free year-round accommodation and bursaries.