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High runaway numbers prompt review into children's homes

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on Wed, 07/18/2012 - 14:53
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The children's minister, Tim Loughton, promised urgent action to cut the number of runaways, which is likely to include restrictions on sending children to homes hundreds of miles away. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Urgent steps on way to reduce number of young people going missing, as Whitehall officials promise rethink into role of homes

The government is to review the effectiveness of children's homes in England amid growing criticism of the number of vulnerable children who are allowed to go missing or run away.

Whitehall sources said ministers were preparing to rethink the role of such homes in the protection of children, as a parliamentary inquiry revealed that their occupants were three times more likely to run away and be exposed to physical and sexual abuse and exploitation as children who lived at home.

Two parliamentary committees found hundreds, if not thousands, were going missing from children's homes each year in England in "a scandal … going on pretty much unnoticed".

The all-party groups on runaway and missing children and looked-after children and care-leavers found local authority social workers too often considered children in homes "troublesome", "a nuisance" and a drain on resources.

One child protection worker told the inquiry that some professionals saw girls who went missing from homes and became victims of sexual exploitation as "slags who knew what they were getting themselves into" rather than vulnerable young people in need of support.

Another said: "You can have someone looking after a young person who, the day before, their experience may have been working at a deli counter in Asda."

Police estimate that 10,000 children went missing from care of all kinds last year, some for a few hours, while the Department for Education recorded 930 children missing for at least 24 hours. The issue has become more urgent since the conviction in May of nine men in Rochdale for the sexual assault, rape and trafficking of girls as young as 13, including one who had asked to be moved from a children's home to stop exploitation.

"When children go missing, they are at very serious risk of physical abuse, sexual exploitation and sometimes so desperate they will rob or steal to survive," said Ann Coffey and the Earl of Listowel, who belong to the committees. "Until recently protecting these children has not been at the top of anyone's priority list. As a consequence, we do not know for sure how many children go missing from care, where they go missing or what happens to them when they are gone."

About 4,500 children live in one of England's 1,810 registered care homes, three-quarters of which are run by the voluntary or private sector.

The committees found the children's home system was "not fit for purpose" and said children are going missing despite the government spending an average of £200,000 a year per child on care home places. They found almost half of all children in homes are placed outside their home local authority despite evidence this encourages them to run away, and that police are often prevented from knowing the names and addresses of children's homes.

"Under the current system, a sexual predator could be sitting in a car outside a children's home, which the police do not know exists," the report warns.

The committees heard evidence that Ofsted had given "good" and "outstanding" ratings to homes that had allowed children to repeatedly go missing.

Enver Solomon, policy director at the Children's Society, said evidence from ongoing police investigations and court cases confirmed the extent of the problem, which he said particularly affected children between the ages of 11 and 17, who are more likely to end up in homes after previous remedies have failed.

The children's minister Tim Loughton accepted the findings of the report and said the government would set out urgent steps to be taken in the coming week, which are likely to include improvements in tracking when and where children go missing, restrictions on local authorities sending children to homes hundreds of miles away and demands that Ofsted takes missing children into account when it audits homes.

"It is completely unacceptable that existing rules are simply being ignored and frankly, some local authorities and children's homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper 'parent'," he said. "It is wrong for local agencies not to have a grip on how many children are going missing from care nor for proper alarms to be raised and action taken when teenagers run away multiple times. It is shocking to hear that any professional could think that teenagers at risk of being physically or sexually abused are making lifestyle choices of their own volition, rather than being the victims of crime."

Officials said a review of the effectiveness of children's homes would follow. "There is a wider issue of where children's homes fit into the care system," said a Whitehall source. "The people who live in them tend to be older children who have gone through multiple placements and we have to ask if the current children's home system is giving those kids the support they need because the outcomes for kids in care homes have been pretty poor."

  • The Guardian


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 A SOCIAL worker who ignored a tip-off that a toddler had suffered horrific abuse and did his paperwork instead has been struck off.

Philip Bowater was working for Wolverhampton City Council when he was told that a three year-old had been battered by his mother’s boyfriend.

The carer should have followed strict procedures for handling reports of violence against children and arranged to visit the youngster within two hours.

But instead, he spent an afternoon doing paperwork.


Then, when he was unable to track down the three-year-old, he failed to notify colleagues before going home for the weekend.

The tot – known as Child B – was later taken to hospital with injuries to his face, legs and right ear, sparking a police investigation.

The toddler’s mum and her boyfriend were subsequently arrested by police on suspicion of child cruelty.

Now Bowater, who had previously been demoted from a team manager role, has been banned from the profession after a hearing at the General Social Care Council (GSCC).

They ruled he was guilty of misconduct.

“The registrant did not follow basic child protection procedures in relation to Child B, a most vulnerable three-year-old child,” said the GSCC panel.

“His failures clearly put Child B at a much greater risk of harm.

“The registrant also failed to protect his own position by passing information on to others and recording his actions.


“Inevitably this meant that no-one else in Wolverhampton Social Services was aware that evening and night that Child B had not been seen and his safety assured.

“We decided that the behaviour of the registrant was so serious that the only appropriate sanction in this case is removal from the Register.”

The GSCC panel was also told of a series of failing in relation to other cases. They found 36 failings in Bowater’s conduct in just one year.

The shamed social worker’s disciplinary troubles began in December 2008 when his manager Balbir Singh realised he was not carrying out these basic tasks.

These included not arranging visits to vulnerable youngsters and not referring parents of children to alcohol dependency and bereavement counselling services.

She arranged a series of meetings where they agreed Bowater would meet targets in relation to nine children in his care.

But at subsequent meetings he admitted he had failed to meet the standards expected of him, including his behaviour in relation to the Child B case, which happened in October 2009.

Council bosses met in May 2010 and decided to sack him on grounds of gross misconduct before referring his case to the GSCC.

Bowater, who did not attend the GSCC hearing held in London this week, has 28 days to appeal their decision.

by Jonny Greatrex, Sunday Mercury