Social care system 'handing children over' to criminal gangs, report finds

29 December 2021, 13:43 | Updated: 29 December 2021, 13:52

The report found teenagers being taken into care are sometimes put in more danger than before entering the care system.
The report found teenagers being taken into care are sometimes put in more danger than before entering the care system. Picture: Alamy

By Elizabeth Haigh

The current social care system is not fit for purpose and is "handing some children over" to criminal gangs, a report has found.

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The report found that while some children are taken into care to safeguard them from county lines and criminal exploitation, they can be put in more serious danger in the system.

It concluded that on some occasions, sources from within local authorities have even tipped off criminal gangs once vulnerable teenagers are moved into unregulated accommodation.

The findings from the Commission on Young Lives say that the system, designed to protect vulnerable teenagers, is "infuriatingly inadequate" and has not kept up with older children's needs.

The findings come in the wake of serious pressure and criticism of the social care system following the tragic deaths of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson.

A nationwide review into children's social care has since been launched.

The report's findings follow the deaths of 6-year-old Arthur and 16-month-old Star.
The report's findings follow the deaths of 6-year-old Arthur and 16-month-old Star. Picture: Alamy

Read more: Woman laughs before being jailed for life over 'cruel' murder of one-year-old Star Hobson

Arthur died aged 6 last year following months of abuse at the hands of his father and stepmother. He suffered an unsurvivable brain injury.

Arthur's stepmother was jailed for a minimum of 29 years for murder, and his father for a minimum of 21 years for manslaughter.

Star died after a campaign of abuse, suffering "catastrophic" injuries at the hands of her mother's girlfriend. She was just 16 months old.

Concerns had been raised about Star's wellbeing before her death by those who knew her.

Star's mother, Frankie Smith, was sentenced to 8 years in prison for causing or allowing her daughter's death, while partner Savannah Brockhill was jailed for 25 years for murder.

The age of children in care is increasing, analysis from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found, with the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in care making up 23% of all children in care as of March this year.

Read more: London council 'culture of cover-up' saw Lambeth care home children abused

The report found many vulnerable teenagers who are taken into care are moved away from their local area and support networks, and sometimes to areas which have higher levels of crime.

Some of the children who go into care are "more likely to experience instability through multiple placement moves and changes in social worker" and are placed in "completely unsuitable" housing.

According to the authors of the report, criminal gangs target vulnerable teenagers in a "serious and ruthless" manner, giving them responsibilities before robbing them and leaving them indebted to criminals.

The rising numbers of teenagers in care show a "failure of prevention", the report states. It recommends the government set up a Vulnerable Teenagers At Risk ministerial task force, and that the Department of Education initiate a Teenager in Care package of support including the financing of new local community children's homes.

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Anne Longfield, chair of the Commission on Young Lives and the former children's commissioner, said: "A children's social care system that is supposed to protect vulnerable teenagers is frequently putting them in even greater danger.

"Often, we may as well be handing over children directly to ruthless gangs and criminals. It is unfit for purpose.

"We know the number of vulnerable teenagers at risk of exploitation entering the care system is becoming older, with more complex and expensive needs, and growing.

Read more: Government 'not satisfied' with sentences for 'appalling' Arthur Labinjo-Hughes murder

"We also know this is putting an enormous strain on the whole children's social care system.

"The recent horrific murders of two young children show the tragic consequence of a child protection system stretched to its absolute limit."

In 2021 almost 2,000 children in care in London alone were living in semi-independent accommodation, with more than 4,000 spending time in a location outside of their borough.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We recognise many vulnerable young people face new and growing risks, which is why we are providing targeted support through our specialist alternative provision and SAFE taskforces, backed by £45 million, to keep these young people engaged in their education and to prevent them becoming involved in criminal activity.

"While the independent review of children's social care continues, we are urgently reforming the system to address growing pressures.

"This includes by introducing national standards and new oversight from Ofsted for supported accommodation, and maintaining and increasing the number of places in these homes backed by £259 million."