Scandal of a system that lets thousands of children ‘disappear’

Lord Laming promised that his report would mark a turning point for
improving child protection. This would help to bring respite to a
lot of vulnerable children all over the country. In particular, for
African children such as Victoria Climbie it would mark a
significant step forward in efforts to enhance their protection
from cruelty and abuse.

I strongly believe that this report could not have come at a more
crucial time for African children in this country, bearing in mind
the plethora of issues confronting them. This group of children and
their families form a high proportion of the socially excluded in
the UK and are most likely to live in poor, deprived areas.

In addition to the poverty, experts working in different fields of
child protection and child welfare continue to point to the
vulnerability of African children and to failures within the system
to protect them from abuse.

There are more than 10,000 west African children in private foster
care. This is an area of child care that is grossly unmonitored by
social services, thereby leaving children unprotected.

The case of Victoria Climbie has helped to highlight the failures
within the system to ensure adequate care and provision are in
place to protect newly arrived children. Children arriving here are
able to slip through the net because there is no system for
tracking their movements after arrival. These children disappear
into the streets of Britain, never to be seen again. Increasingly,
councils in the gateway areas are reporting cases of children
coming to the country unaccompanied. A lot of the children who end
up in local authority care are African. Some are known to disappear
subsequently – as has been the case in West Sussex – only to end up
in exploitative child labour elsewhere.

In addition, there continue to be reports from local authorities,
especially in London, and anecdotal evidence from community groups,
about the increase in the number of African children being
exploited for domestic labour. While most of these are anecdotal in
nature, both the media and the evidence support them.

The above snapshot points to the vulnerability of African children.
Improved safeguarding and protection of children is urgent in
several areas.

Six years ago, Sir William Utting’s report identified private
fostering as an area of concern.1 The number of African
children in private foster care is the highest of any group. As
registration of private foster carers is not compulsory, it seldom
happens. Social services are therefore under no pressure to protect
these children.

In our submission to the Victoria Climbi’ Inquiry last year, we
added our voice to the call by practitioners for all private foster
carers to be approved or registered with social services before
taking children into their care. We called for training in child
protection to be compulsory. Our hope was that Laming’s report
would include recommendations for registration to be made
compulsory and for councils to be more active in safeguarding
children in private foster care and including them in service

We are concerned about the ease with which children can be
trafficked into the country and, under the nose of immigration
officials, can pass through the system straight into the hands of
potential abusers. Children coming to the country unaccompanied can
be picked up on arrival by anyone with only a minimum effort made
to ascertain their identity. Even under suspicion, with nothing
tangible to hold on to, immigration officials cannot do much, since
suspected child abduction is a matter for the police rather than
the immigration service.

This gap, that leaves children unprotected from possible abuse and
exploitation, needs to be bridged immediately. In fact, much of the
system in place at the UK’s entry points needs to be overhauled. A
more sophisticated way to track new arrivals should be researched
and implemented, this clearly being one area where greater efforts
should be made to enhance joint working and communication between
the agencies that have regular contact with children – the police,
social services, immigration, education and health services. It is
not obvious that a national child protection agency would help but,
at the very least, a stronger and improved system needs to be a

A recent positive step forward in the new Nationality, Immigration
and Asylum Act is the recognition of trafficking as a criminal
offence with up to 25 years in jail as punishment. But this only
considers trafficking for sexual exploitation and does not include
trafficking for purposes such as domestic labour. However, in
recent weeks, media reports have focused on children being brought
in from Africa. Though the purposes for which these children are
being brought here are unclear, domestic labour and benefit fraud
cannot be ruled out. My fear is that little effort will now be made
by the police to deal with suspected traffickers of children for
purposes other than prostitution, since there is less possibility
of a conviction. In my view, all forms of child abuse and
exploitation should be seen as criminal offences.

The safeguarding and protection of vulnerable children at the local
level requires a concerted effort and a strong system to effect
positive changes. In most local authorities, area child protection
committees exist only in name with no real power and no resources.
However, these structures have a potential that needs to be
harnessed. By bringing on board others within the community who
work with children and who can provide advice and information on
key issues practitioners might not be aware of, the role of the
committees should be strengthened. Community groups, for example,
have their own ways of working successfully with families in
crisis. They can also enlighten practitioners about cultural issues
affecting children of which they might not be aware.

Much depends on the Laming report and its recommendations for
government action to protect children. But the onus is on the
government and its agencies to ensure that the recommendations in
the report are implemented. We wait patiently to see whether this
will happen.

1 W Utting, People Like Us, The Stationery Office, 1997

Debbie Ariyo is director of Africans Unite Against Child

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