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Case update 02 August 2021

Gavin Williamson accused of unlawful failure to intervene as local authorities put children in care at risk

By Sophia Alexandra Hall 

Almost 40% of children in care are being moved outside of their local authority area.

Good Law Project has launched a legal challenge to the very high numbers of children in care being placed outside of their local area. According to the campaigners, local authorities are placing children miles away from home because they have failed to secure sufficient accommodation in their areas. 

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Good Law Project’s case challenges five failing councils, as well as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, for not stepping in to ensure they are complying with their legal duties.

The evidence suggests the 38% of children in care nationally who are moved out of area are being put at particular risk of isolation, sexual exploitation, poor mental health, and county lines involvement.

Emma* worked as a Child Sexual Exploitation Youth Worker for a local authority until 2017, before becoming a foster carer.

Emma said: “A child vulnerable to sexual exploitation is vulnerable whatever postcode they reside in. However, those in new areas, without the informal networks and community history a local area can bring, are particularly vulnerable, as no one is necessarily looking out for them.

Perpetrators of Child Sexual Exploitation are “experts at detecting the right vulnerabilities and loneliness”, Emma explains. “A child in a new area will stick out like a sore thumb” making them easier targets.

Chris Wild is an independent manager working in the care sector.

“This isn’t rocket science,” Chris says. “A young person who is affiliated with drug gangs from London gets moved out of area. They are then a perfect culprit for organised gangs wanting to extend their business into different areas… and this is only one of so many potential negatives.”

Chris is also a member of the ‘Experts by Experience’ board for England’s Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. The review, launched by the Government in March 2021, is supported by the Experts by Experience Group, which promises to help hear the diverse experiences of children and families who are supported by social workers.

“I once worked with a young person who was removed from my care because he was caught up in street gangs and taken out of area,” says Chris. “Two days later, he was knocking on my door. They will always gravitate back to their zone.”

The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care recently reached its first major milestone, with the publication of the Case for Change. The Case for Change document sets out what the review has heard so far from the social care community, and where they think the system needs to change.

While the document acknowledges that the number of children in care being moved far from home has increased in the last decade, it fails to go into detail on the problematic outcomes of these moves.

Sedil, 21, was moved out of area by her local authority when she was 17 years old, after being abused physically and sexually by a local gang. As there was a risk to her life, the police and social services started an investigation in order to put safeguarding measures in place to protect her safety. But not all of her needs were considered.

“Getting into university was important for me as I wanted to get away from London because of the on-going trauma I was experiencing. I was completing my A level exams, but the first house I was placed in was very far away from my college,” Sedil says.

Moving young people who’ve been victims of sexual exploitation away from their area does not solve the problem.

Chris recounts: “I was working with a young girl who was placed out of area to keep her safe from sexual exploitation. But the gang just drove out to go get her. Out of area placements don’t work.”

Emma* suggests that out of area placements happen due to both a lack of placements and poor placement matching. 

In some cases, local authorities will conduct national searches in order to find a placement with specialist requirements. *Emma reveals: “In my experience, placements described as therapeutic, specialist or child-centred, are all profit-making companies. They are run by low paid, unqualified staff. Claims of ‘Child Sexual Exploitation specialist’ or ‘trauma focussed’ can literally mean one staff member did an online course.”

I spoke to an independent advisor with a particular knowledge of commissioning for children in care. They said while some children are moved as it is in their best interests, there is often a “panicked, last-minute, scattergun approach to placing children, when instead there needs to be a full assessment based on the child’s individual circumstances, wishes and needs”.

Claudia, 24, was moved out of area from Manchester to York at age 5. She was told that her local authority “didn’t want [her]”, which exacerbated already prevalent feelings of being unwanted, unsupported and uncared for.

Her social workers had to travel from Manchester to York to visit her. She admits “whilst they were coming to check on my wellbeing, development and safety, it also felt like a day trip or event for them”. Claudia has never been given an answer as to why she couldn’t be supported by the Local Authority she was originally living in, and says “as a result, I’ve felt unwanted in various aspects of my life. To this day, I will shut people out and push them away for fear of them not wanting me”.

In comparison with the general population, looked after children have an increased risk of self-harming behaviour and mental health problems. A 2017 Barnardo’s report on mental health support for young people leaving care found that over two-thirds of care leavers with mental health problems were not receiving specialist support.

Nick, 28, was moved from Bristol to Cheltenham when he was 13. He says: “The way my move was handled, and the fact I wasn’t asked for my opinion, made me feel very worthless. I was depressed and felt like just another number to them.”

A Local Government Association report found that the largest private care providers made £219 million in profit in 2020, while local authorities were struggling to balance their books.

“Local authorities move young people out of area as they can not afford accommodation for the young person due to private providers raising their prices,” says Chris. “They know local authorities are inundated with more and more young people aged 16 and over coming into care.”

The vast majority (75%) of children’s homes are run by the private sector, and children’s homes are disproportionately located in the North of England, where real estate is cheaper.

Nick agrees that financial issues play a strong factor in potential out of area moves. “When I was placed out of area, part of my identity was taken from me without giving me a choice, and I have never been given a justifiable reason for that decision”.

When deciding where to place a child, Nick calls on local authority commissioners and decision-makers to “use your heads and your hearts collectively”.

“Don’t just think about what the cheapest option will be.”

Sophia Alexandra Hall is a care-experienced journalist who has written about the state of the care system for multiple national publications. She was recently awarded a Diana Award, and the title of ‘Top Talent under 25’, for the creation of her award-winning research dissemination podcast, Who cares about Research?.

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