Safeguarding staff in Sunderland will be alerted to social media risks after investigations into deaths of two girls in care found online sites played “significant” roles in their vulnerability.
The two serious case reviews, and a thematic report on the findings, recommended local agencies should support staff to learn more about social media and the services available to help parents, carers and young people use them safely. Audits should also be used to confirm there are robust arrangements in place regarding e-safety, it was recommended.
The two girls died while under the care of Sunderland council’s children’s services. Both had troubled family lives and were sexually exploited and bullied on social media.
One of the girls, referred to as K, took her own life aged 14. The second girl, referred to as I, died at a party and a coroner delivered an open verdict after finding “there was no indication that she intended to kill herself”.
The review into K’s death found she had experienced an “unsettled family background” from an early age and had witnessed domestic violence. She started self-harming aged 12 and was placed in foster care when evidence emerged she was at risk of sexual exploitation.
Social media played a “very significant” role in her vulnerability and her “sexualised risk-taking behaviour”, the review found.
A review into I’s death revealed she had experienced “considerable turmoil” in the last two years of her life. She experienced physical and emotional abuse at home and subsequently had a series of foster placements. Risks to her safety increased as she used alcohol and drugs and became a victim of sexual exploitation when she went missing from care.
The review found that social media had “played a significant part in her life, particularly Facebook; and regrettably this included bullying, arguments and rumours”, adding that it was “clear retrospectively” that the sites had “played a significant role in her vulnerability.”
Jane Held, the independent chair of the safeguarding board, said professionals “were not equipped with the awareness and knowledge they needed” on online risks.
She said: “Not only was the internet providing opportunities to target, groom and exploit the young people, provide access to friends living elsewhere, draw them back home etc., it was used to victimise and bully them and to control their behaviours as part of exploitative behaviour.”
The social media finding was only one of a series of learning points to emerge from the reports
The thematic report found that Sunderland’s safeguarding workforce was “under considerable pressure” – echoing findings from a similar review into child safeguarding processes for babies that was published last week.
The serious case reviews also found that local authority staff were unable to reach the girls emotionally and build relationships with them.
Held said that the implications of the girls going missing from care was not fully understood by teams. No return interviews were carried out so the girls didn’t have an opportunity to disclose what was happening to them, she added.
“Staff recognised many risks but underestimated the depth and enduring nature of the girls’ distress or that the girls were victims of serious exploitation,” said Held.
The degree of professional anxiety about the risk-taking behaviour obscured the need for action to disrupt the perpetrators of risk. Staff were reactive rather than proactive in managing what was going on for the girls, care plans were not always well made and time[s] inconsistent, and the care provided not always the right form of care”.
She added: “The death of these two young ladies is deeply upsetting for everyone, not least their families. The reviews into why the services they received were not always as good as they could have been show that there are common reasons why this happened.
“Those reasons are not excuses but are important to understand if we are to learn from what happened and improve how well we support other vulnerable children and young people. The publication of these reports shows how seriously we are taking the learning and what we are doing about it.”