Talking Politics: Care for vulnerable children

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More often than not, when we hear about the care system, it is because children are being let down.

So I wanted to let you know about the work that has been going on quietly with Ministers, MPs and officials to improve the support for vulnerble children in the care system.

Last year two cross party groups of MPs (The All Party Parliamentary Group on Looked After Children and Care Leavers of which I’m Chair, and The All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaways and Missing Children and Adults) worked together to publish a report – supported by The Children’s Society and The Who Cares Trust - which highlighted a number of concerns about children who were going missing from care.

There are just over 65,000 children in care in England. Most of these children live with foster families but around nine per cent are placed in children’s homes.

These children are extremely vulnerable – the majority of them taken into care because of serious abuse and neglect. Many have special educational needs or behavioural difficulties that require specialist support. Many are placed in children’s homes following numerous previous placement breakdowns.

Our report showed that not only were children placed in homes that could not always provide the specialist care that the children so desperately needed but that local authorities were placing thousands of children miles away from their local area, often contrary to the best interests of the child.

The report showed that a combination of poor decisions about placements and inadequate support in children’s homes made children in care easy targets for grooming and sexual exploitation. It also made them more likely to run away.

In rare circumstances – such as where we need to protect a child from further abuse or trafficking – it might be suitable to place a child outside their local area. But in most instances, it makes it harder for children to get the support they need. And evidence shows that being placed a long way from family and friends is often a factor in causing children to run away.

Our report heard that nearly a third of all children in foster care and almost a half of children in children’s homes are placed outside of their local area. And 28 per cent of children placed in children’s homes were more than 20 miles from their area local authority.

A year on from our report, the government has taken a number of welcome steps to protect and improve the lives of children who live in care who need and deserve support.

The government is proposing to make local authorities scrutinise decisions about out of area placements much more closely, so that this only happens where there is a clear need to place a child at a distance from home - such as when a child who has been trafficked needs to be far away from their traffickers.

Local authorities will also have to work with each other and consult before placing a child out of area.

This is so that local authorities know about things like whether children’s homes have been targeted for grooming, for instance, before making a decision to place a vulnerable child there.

The government has also set out new proposals to help protect and support children in care who go missing. Something that care leavers always tell us is that if they left care at 16 or 17 years old they often felt that this was too soon. Now there will be greater scrutiny of decisions about leaving care to ensure that no 16 or 17 year old feels forced to move on before they feel ready.

There will also be a greater focus on the quality of care in care homes with an emphasis on better training for care home staff to keep young people safe and respond to their needs in a way that good parents would do.

These are changes that are happening and will affect the lives of thousands of children. We hope these changes will mean children who are in care can thrive and fulfil their potential.

My APPG and Ann Coffey MP’s APPG joined forces and presented a case to government. This happened because brave children came forward and told their stories; good police officers, care home workers and social workers told us what needs to change and charities like The Who Cares Trust and The Children’s Society worked together.

Ministers and officials have listened and we now are at a place where children’s lives can be improved.

Politicians don’t always have a good story to tell but sometimes Parliament and Government quietly gets on and does the right thing.