Teenagers placed at risk of criminal and sexual exploitation by “fundamental” failures in the children’s social care system deserve a “brand-new offer”, a study has concluded.
The report from the Commission on Young Lives, chaired by ex-children’s commissioner Anne Longfield, argued that while many children benefit from going into care, adolescents are too often let down by “piecemeal, uncoordinated and underfunded” services. Black boys are at particular danger both of being criminally exploited and of being treated as offenders rather than victims, it warned.
The research highlighted sharp rises in the numbers of teenagers in care – with adolescents accounting for 27% of proceedings in 2019-20, up from 18% a decade ago – and exploitation risks associated with out-of-borough residential placements and unregulated provision.
Drawing on previous reports’ findings, it noted problems caused by cuts to preventative services and by statutory agencies failing to identify risk beyond the family home, as well as the impact of the pandemic on young people’s ‘visibility’. It also criticised market-based care provision that sees demand for placements – many of which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds – outstrip supply and children’s homes being concentrated in cheaper areas of the country.
Among a series of recommendations, the new study called on the Department for Education (DfE) to extend the ban introduced on unregulated placements to cover all teenagers up to age 18.
It said the DfE should “rapidly” increase the capacity of residential care for teens, including by financing community children’s homes enabling young people to remain close to their local areas, and should work to recruit specialist teen foster carers.
“Resetting children’s social care will require determined action and some funding, but it is clear there are huge benefits not only to those vulnerable young people who need protection, but also to the public purse,” Longfield said. “We need a new offer for vulnerable teenagers in care and on the edge of care.”
The Local Government Association (LGA) said in response to the report that councils were eager to work with central government on a “child-centred, cross-government plan”.
“This would need to be supported by the right level of funding to enable councils and their partners to provide the early intervention and prevention support to stop children reaching crisis point in the first place,” said Anntoinette Bramble, chair of LGA’s children and young people board.
‘Nervous’ approach to contextual safeguarding
The report said the DfE should work “at speed” with local authorities to develop new interventions aimed at ensuring that teens on the edge of care could remain “safe and with their families”.
It noted that the contextual safeguarding approach developed by Carlene Firmin, now a professor at Durham University, offered “potentially radical” ways to refocus services on teenagers at risk of exploitation.
But the report added that while 54 councils had committed themselves to the framework, which takes a location-based approach to assessing risks beyond the family home, only a minority had taken steps to develop responses to risk contexts.
“Local authorities seem more nervous [in] adopting approaches [that] would put them in a proactive leadership role,” it said. “Such an approach could raise issues around factors like guardianship capacity to keep young people safe, or issues around the build environment or school exclusions.”
The study quoted Firmin, who was called as a witness by the commission, as saying that fully embracing contextual safeguarding approaches would mean councils having to call into question decisions to move young people out of borough.
“[We need to] stop finding the children that are most likely to be stabbed and start looking at the places where this is happening,” Firmin was quoted as saying. “[At present] we try and fix the child not the context.”
Warning on racial bias
The study added that councils and safeguarding partners should “establish a co-ordinated, intelligence-led response across all agencies to ensure teenagers at risk are identified and that agencies work together to deliver a comprehensive and co-ordinated response”.
It noted that social work models built around younger children and their parents were not flexible enough to deliver out-of-hours outreach, meaning adolescents were “in effect ‘handed over’ to the criminal justice system” once council offices closed.
The research also highlighted biases – around gender, but especially race – in terms of how young people at risk of exploitation are treated by agencies.
It said contributors had consistently raised the issue of the “disproportionate numbers of BAME children, and particularly black young people” within both the justice system and the wider social care landscape.
“Black children, particularly teenage boys, are less likely to be seen as victims, more likely to be viewed as ‘offenders’ and subject to ‘adultification’, where they are excluded from perception of the vulnerable and experience punitive responses,” it added.
The report called on the government to establish a cross-departmental board focusing on teenagers at risk, which should investigate racial bias within children’s services. “This would include working with grassroots BAME organisations to ensure we have a care system that is attuned to specific issues this group may have and guaranteed a move towards reducing disproportionality in the social care and justice system,” it said.
More broadly, the board should work to ensure joined-up working around accommodation and support – including around mental health – for teenagers, school inclusion and violence reduction initiatives, the report said.