The Blog

Urgent Action Needed to Protect Children in Care from Sexual Exploitation

There is some excellent work going on, but too many children's homes simply aren't getting to the bottom of why young people go missing. To use the jargon, the state must be a 'corporate parent' to them. Put simply, that means to act the same way as any decent parent would.

If your 14 year-old daughter rolled in at 2am you'd be climbing up the walls. You'd sit her down and find out what was going on. And you wouldn't give up until you knew exactly where she'd been and what had happened to her. We must afford the same protection to our looked-after children.

Today the NSPCC has published new data showing how many cases of children missing from care occur each year. A shocking 28,000 cases were reported last year alone. The true figure is likely to be much higher. But it's the number of times individual children go missing that is really worrying; over 3,000 children when missing repeatedly and one child went missing 67 times.

There is some excellent work going on, but too many children's homes simply aren't getting to the bottom of why young people go missing. To use the jargon, the state must be a 'corporate parent' to them. Put simply, that means to act the same way as any decent parent would.

And the reason for this is simple. When a child or young person goes missing, especially if they do this repeatedly, they are at huge risk. It can be a sign of drug use, early sexual activity, or being groomed or involved in gangs. Repeatedly running away should be a big red flag to those working with children in care, but too often the warning signs are being missed.

We still see too many cases of those responsible for looking after children in care missing the signs that a child is, or at risk of, suffering harm. Too often it is dismissed as 'normal'. If a child is going missing that should be a cause to ask questions and understand what is happening for that child. The more often it happens, the more questioning there should be. Repeatedly going missing should never be viewed as normal behaviour - it's risky and should be treated as such.

Children in care go missing for a range of reasons. They may be being bullied, have been placed many miles away from their family and friends, or they may not trust their care worker enough to tell them where they are going. Until we understand these needs, and support each child, we won't prevent children from going missing.

Sadly, at present, children in care tell us that instead they often feel punished for going missing. One young boy told us of how his shoes were removed to stop him running away again, others of how they were kept in their rooms or had their pocket money taken away. These responses will never build the strong supportive relationships that children in care need. It is these relationships that are critical to keeping them safe.

Last month the Association of Chief Police Officers announced they will be advising police forces not to respond to every report of a child missing from care. New guidance advises that the police should not actively investigate a case if the behaviour is not out of character and there are no apparent risks to the child.

Their reasons for this were justified by how much time it would save their officers, with little reference to how it will help the young people themselves. Where behaviour is not seen as 'out of character' it is likely that instances of going missing will not be treated with the same level of concern. But we know that too often warning signs are missed based on how people think children and young people in care normally behave.

This is worrying. Children in care are already incredibly vulnerable, the majority have suffered abuse or neglect before they came into care. They are deliberately targeted by abusers because of this vulnerability and because they can be desperate for love and affection. As a result children are coerced or forced into doing things they shouldn't or don't want to do. At its worst, in the cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, we've seen the impact of treating these risks as 'normal' behaviour for children in care, resulting in children suffering unimaginable harm.

We need to develop responses to going missing that are tailored to the needs of each individual child. It's right that it might not be appropriate for the police to respond in every case - at the NSPCC we've seen young people who've said that the minute the police are involved they won't tell people where they are going or what they are doing and this puts them at greater risk. But this variation must be based on understanding the child's circumstances and needs rather than a set response based on an assumed level of risk. In the first instance all instances of where children in care go missing must be treated as risky.

It is important to remember that care provides a safe loving environment to the majority of children in care. Social workers, foster parents, and residential care workers may provide the only peace, constant presence, and stable relationship in a troubled young person's life. We mustn't blame care for all of the problems faced by these children. But equally we mustn't settle for low expectations or accept the challenges they face. No child, let alone one who has been taken into the care of the state, should suffer what is experienced by some of the most vulnerable children in the care system.

The Department for Education has shone a spotlight on tackling the problem of sexual exploitation, for which it deserves credit. It is trialling new ways to improve the data available on children who go missing from care, so that we better understand the scale of the problem. And so that local authorities, police forces and residential homes can work together better to protect children in care. However, data collection alone will not solve the problem; we need to improve the quality of care that children and young people receive.

To achieve this we must put children's experiences at the heart of professionals' responses to going missing from care. All those working with children in care must act like a good parent would. They must understand why a child went missing and how their needs can be met to keep them safe. If your child went missing you'd move heaven and earth to find them and then understand what happened to them, why it happened, and how you can stop it happening again. The same must be true for children in care or we will be letting down our most vulnerable children.