15/10/2013 09:10 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Government Must Do More to Protect Children in Care

With awareness of child sexual exploitation never higher, not a week now seems to go by without a court case or investigation in the news. Thankfully more and more offenders are being caught and punished. ..

With awareness of child sexual exploitation never higher, not a week now seems to go by without a court case or investigation in the news. Thankfully more and more offenders are being caught and punished.

Recent cases such as in Oxford, Derby and Rochdale, have highlighted the shocking abuse suffered by some children and young people in care. And last month, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) released details of a major investigation into the alleged abuse of 22 victims, with 30 arrests made. The BBC reported that the majority of the children involved were abused when they went missing from care homes.

Research shows that while any child can be a victim of this crime, children in care are particularly vulnerable and more needs to be done to protect these children from the men who prey on them for sexual abuse.

These children deserve better. We must remember that care provides safety to the majority of children but there are a minority who continue to suffer unimaginable harm.

Last month Michael Gove published new data on residential care - highlighting some of the challenges faced by children and young people in care, as well as the professionals wanting to help these children achieve their full potential. The current situation whereby just under half of children in residential care (46%) are placed far away from home, separated from their wider family or friends, fails too many young people.

Not enough is done to promote their well-being or protect them from harm. These children are at risk of running away, and find it more difficult to access the support they need. Some of these vulnerable children are targeted for exploitation and abuse - to be passed around by men who see them as little more than commodities for sexual gratification.

Raising public awareness of the failings in the care system is one thing, but it needs to be backed by Government action. Children and young people in residential care are often extremely vulnerable and traumatised as a result of difficult and painful previous experiences. They often need sustained and intensive support to get beyond what has happened to them previously.

Children in residential care are on average, older with more complex needs - 29% have had five or more placements before coming in to a children's home. Over 70% of children in residential care have mental health difficulties. Many are placed in children's homes for only a short period of time, making the provision of effective support incredibly challenging. Finger pointing only goes so far with a system straining under increasing pressure. Increased transparency and accountability is an important step in the right direction but won't on its own improve standards of care or protect children in care from the spectre of sexual exploitation.

Residential care homes, local authorities have a role to play to deliver improvements, as do social workers, health care workers, the police and other specialist services. It requires all of these working together, listening to the individual needs of children and ensuring the appropriate support is there whatever children are struggling to cope with, working in partnership to ensure that the needs of children and young people are met.

The Government and Michael Gove have a role to play too. They need to show what they will do to support staff working in child protection, education, and the residential care system to meet the needs of children earlier. Recent Government figures show a rise in the number of adoptions to nearly 4,000 in 2012/13 but this has been achieved with significant government support, which must be replicated elsewhere. Shining the spotlight on the problems in residential care was the right thing for the Government to do.

These issues have long been a concern of those working in this field. The Government must now show how it will help support improvement across the sector so that all children in residential care are less at risk and feel supported, not isolated or let down. And Michael Gove must take a lead in this, as he has recently in highlighting the current challenges. The needs of children are too important for him not to.