Last month, three gang members in Croydon were sent to prison after they were found guilty of recruiting vulnerable children in care homes to distribute drugs across county lines.
Two of the teenage boys had travelled from their placement in Manchester to Hastings to distribute heroin. A few days later, a criminal gang was convicted after 30 vulnerable girls were exploited to commit fraud, most of them recruited while housed in foster placements or semi-independent accommodation.
These teenagers are just some of the latest victims of an epidemic of drug-running, exploitation and grooming, and serious violence. What is so disturbing is that the children involved are in the care of the state.
In December, I published the first thematic report by the Commission on Young Lives, a year-long commission I chair which is looking at how we can divert teenagers away from crime and exploitation. We began with children’s social care, given the ongoing Independent Care Review led by Josh MacAlister.
The MacAlister Review will rightly focus on improving care for all children, but it is clear to me there is an urgent need to prevent many of these teenagers from ever entering care – a system which we know is not equipped well for older children. We know there are a growing number of teenagers on the edge of care or entering care: 10–15-year-olds are now the fastest growing group of children entering care and 16-and-17-year-olds now make up 23% of children in care. This is a major challenge for a system designed for younger children and it is putting a huge strain on council finances and services.
Relying primarily on family-based foster care designed for younger children, the system has not adapted to the needs of teenagers in care who are less likely to wish to or be able to live in family care. Relying on a limited number of residential places, where demand significantly outstrips supply, has put many teenagers at increased risk, whilst also driving costs for local authorities sky-high. Moving hundreds of teenagers in care far from their home area too frequently and placing some in unregulated provision that is often unsuitable and dangerous has put some in harm’s way.
I would like to see the Independent Review tackle these core problems by proposing a new offer for teenagers. This should include the development of specialist – including remand – foster carers to work alongside families and teenagers where there is a risk of exploitation and harm, or where things are so difficult that teenagers are at risk of going into care. It would explore shared care models and what these young people need in terms of skills and delivery.
I would also like the review to put forward a ‘supporting teenagers’ offer, providing a distinct service for families of teenagers at risk, as part of the family hubs rollout.
I believe there is appetite among local authorities and charities to deliver community children’s homes. Children’s services should make the case for using their capital, using an ‘invest to save’ review, looking at the risks teenagers face in inappropriate placements.
This new offer would improve early identification and better trigger help. It would enable a pre-care package, including intense support for families to manage risk, and include daily co-ordination of support and join-up between agencies.
It would also mean that if a teenager is taken into care, they receive support linked to new local residential care offers, taking a shared-care approach with specialist foster carers, and supporting resettlement in the family home. The combined effect would give priority to the strengthening of and long-term planning around family relationships, including kinship care.
Currently, many interventions only happen when teenagers in crisis are already either at risk of going into care, or of harm and criminalisation. The result is we make it too easy for criminals to exploit vulnerable children, and a care system, supposed to keep them safe, hands some teenagers over to those who will ruthlessly exploit them.
The Independent Review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle these problems. I hope the Government will be bold and embrace the case for change Josh MacAlister puts forward. Thousands of vulnerable children are relying on it to do so.
Anne Longfield CBE is chair of the Commission on Young Lives and former Children’s Commissioner for England