Urgent reforms announced to protect children in residential care from sexual exploitation
Government plan a raft of measures to prevent sexual exploitation of children in care
Urgent reforms to protect children in residential care homes from sexual exploitation and to overhaul the wider system have been announced by Children's Minister Tim Loughton.
The measures include more robust checks before children are placed in homes outside their home boroughs; overhauling the quality and transparency of data so there is a clear picture of children who go missing from care; and reviewing all aspects of the quality and effectiveness of children's homes – including their management, ownership and staffing.
Ministers have also ordered the lifting of regulations which stop Ofsted telling police and other appropriate agencies the location of children's homes – a key concern in keeping children in care fully protected.
The Government has also published a progress report on the national Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan published in November 2011 and 'step-by-step' guidance for frontline staff – which sets out ongoing work with the courts, police and social services to prosecute and jail abusers; protect young people at risk; and help victims of these appalling crimes get their lives back on track.
This action comes after a report published today by the Deputy Children's Commissioner Sue Berelowitz – ordered after the sentencing in May of nine men who groomed and abused young girls in Rochdale.
Ministers asked her to report urgently on emerging findings from her ongoing Child Sexual Exploitation in Gangs and Groups inquiry, including recommendations on specific risks facing looked-after children living in care homes.
Her report finds growing evidence that children in care are particularly vulnerable to child sexual exploitation – with a disproportionate number being groomed or sexually exploited, although the majority of known victims are outside the care system.
It finds there is a clear emerging picture that some residential homes are specifically targeted by abusers and that given the high turnover of young people in care, "there is a constant flow of vulnerable children for perpetrators to exploit".
It finds evidence that some children who are being sexually exploited may "introduce" other children within homes to their abusers – where they are forced or threatened to bring other children when they meet their exploiters.
And it makes a series of recommendations to address serious weaknesses in how care homes report and react to children going missing; in the checks made before children are placed into care homes; and weaknesses in staff skills and management quality.
Her interim report with fuller findings will be published in September and her final report in autumn 2013. It also follows a damning report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Children Missing From Care published last month, which said there was a "scandal" in the care system and called for urgent action to address key failings.
Ministers accept recommendations in both reports about how to secure improvements and provide better support and safety in children's homes.
This will build on Ofsted's tougher new framework, introduced in April 2012, for the inspection of children's homes that focuses far more strongly at whether a home has taken action to implement recommendations in previous reports, and whether improvements are flowing through in consequence.
The immediate action announced:
- Create a clear picture of children missing from care. There is to be set up a new expert group to develop a robust, transparent and high quality data system. This is intended to resolve the huge discrepancies between the official local authority figures of children in care who go missing from care for more than 24 hours and incidents reported to and recorded by the police. The Department has written to all local authorities asking them to immediately review their own data collections alongside local police figures.
- Ensure children's homes are properly protected and located. Ministers have ordered immediate changes to regulations so that Ofsted can share information about the location of children's homes with the police, and other relevant bodies as appropriate – a key criticism of the current system.
- Help children be located in homes nearer to their local area. Ministers are today announcing a `task and finish group' to report urgently by September on tougher regulations and checks before any local authority can place a child outside their home borough.
Ministers accept there may be good reasons for placing a child or young person at some distance from their home area but argue it is difficult to accept that nearly half of all children in children's homes benefit from such distant placements. Both reports are clear about the problems that can arise.
The government will consult on changes in the autumn.
- Drive up quality and effectiveness of children's homes. Ministers are setting up a further expert working group that will have a broad remit to review and develop a clear action plan to drive up the quality of provision being delivered within children's homes, including the qualifications and skills of the workforce. It will review questions relating to:
o the location of homes and models of ownership and commissioning practice;
o how homes can offer a more therapeutic environment to help children overcome their difficulties;
o what staff development is needed to manage children's behaviour, including when it is appropriate to use restraint;
o the effectiveness of current arrangements to drive improvement across the sector.
The group will report to ministers by December, with a clear reform timetable.
For more details fo to the Department for Education website.