By David Jones*, a residential care worker.
It was 11.30pm and, after searching for the girls for nearly two hours, we finally caught sight of the three of them walking along a poorly-lit and deserted side-street. Turning the car around, my colleague and I drove up to them and asked them if they were ok. At this point they would either agree to return home with us or run off into the night. On this occasion they came back with us.
Looking for missing kids at risk of sexual exploitation, particularly at night, is a part of the job that some residential care workers resent and even fear doing. Certain colleagues will insist it’s the police’s responsibility, but this attitude ignores a certain stark reality.
Young people’s risk assessments clearly detail the procedures to be undertaken when a child goes missing from the home and at which point the police should be informed. If the latter was our instant and only response – and there are obviously no guarantees that the police will be able to respond immediately – how could we possibly claim to be safeguarding the children in our care?
We do all that we can, and addressing the issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) begins with multi-agency work in the residential home. This involves sessions where CSE is discussed with the young people by care workers, the police’s dedicated Child Exploitation Investigation Unit, social workers and school nurses.
Tackling the attitudes of some young people is sometimes impossible, as they don’t appreciate the dangers involved and are determined to meet up with men. So while such sessions do work for some kids, they sadly don’t for others.
As for any additional training or support that would help care workers when combing the streets for missing kids, I’m not sure what that might involve. However, some common sense would be a start. An Ofsted inspector was present one evening when a 15-year-old girl announced to us that she was going out. As my colleague went to speak with her and lock the door, the inspector informed him that you can’t lock up children in a residential home, adding “it’s not a secure unit.”
Certain managers will lock the doors at night, and then at least we know the kids are safe. Given the issues we are dealing with, this should surely be standard practice. Attitudes and policy have to change.
As a care worker helping to safeguard young people against CSE, the methods and challenges can prove demanding and even dangerous. Noting car registration plates, approaching cars parked near the home and speaking to the occupants are within my remit.
On one occasion while driving two girls back to the home, they suddenly opened the doors and jumped out of the vehicle which was travelling at 30 mph. They then got into a car behind us which turned around and raced off. We tried to follow the car but its headlights were turned off and we lost it.
If we’d managed to find it, what would my colleague and I have done? Continued to follow in the hope that the girls would be safely allowed out of the car at some point? This has never happened. And what if the car had stopped and the male occupants got out and threatened or even attacked us? Now that surely is the job of the police, but such is the dilemma we face.
A report earlier in the year by the Centre for the Study of Missing Persons at the University of Portsmouth, found that one children’s residential home had made 93 missing kids calls to the police at an estimated cost to the force of over £220,000. The report also noted that the police shouldn’t always have to share the responsibility for missing young people, one anonymous officer claiming that if care homes investigated before calling the police, they would find them.
In my experience that is sometimes true, but it’s a view that fails to take into account the particular circumstances of the child and their risk assessment. But when one manager won’t expect members of his team to take unnecessary risks, and another won’t recognise them, the lack of clarity only further underlines what care workers are often up against when trying to safeguard these kids.
*Name has been changed