Alarm bells about the dangers faced by vulnerable children being sent to live many miles away from home were first raised in a parliamentary inquiry in 2012.
A report by the All Party Group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults warned then that placing looked after children a long way from home was causing them to go missing. We raised the same concerns in 2016.
Now, in 2019, we have reached crisis point. Today, our group has published a new inquiry – ‘No Place at Home’ – into the increasing dangers faced by this sent away generation, who are magnets for paedophiles and County Lines drugs gangs.
Despite a government pledge to clampdown on the numbers of ‘out of area’ placements, the figures have hit record levels along with record numbers of children going missing.
Two thirds of all children in children’s homes now live out of area and the numbers going missing from those placements has more than doubled since 2015.
So, after years of enduring warm words and broken promises from government, we have not pulled our punches about the dangers of distant placements in today’s report. Urgent action is now needed.
The government must take responsibility and draw up an Emergency Action Plan to slash the numbers of out of area placements, recognising that they do not keep children safe. That plan must ensure that there are enough places for children to live locally.
Evidence submitted to us by 41 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales about the dangers faced by these children is compelling. The government and councils cannot argue with it or hide from it.
70% of police forces are adamant that placing children out of area increases their risks of exploitation and often results in them being coerced into going missing. Many also stressed that county lines gangs particularly target ‘out of area’ children because they are easier to exploit.
We have reached the ludicrous situation where local authorities are unwittingly becoming ‘recruiting’ sergeants for County Lines gangs by placing so many children far away from home and leaving them exposed to high risk.
Local authorities may also be inadvertently opening up new ‘County Lines,’ because relocating children groomed to sell drugs, can create opportunities for criminals to expand their reach into more rural parts of the country.
Children are being systematically failed and placed in danger by the very professionals charged to help them.
We took heart breaking evidence from children of the searing sadness they felt at being isolated so far away from home. One boy tried to hang himself on Christmas and Day and another girl walked 15 miles back to her home town.
Many repeatedly run home, often hitch hiking from remote areas. Others are enticed to go missing by those who seek to exploit them. One girl told us she had run away and gone missing 100 times.
Our report also shines a light on a new area of deep concern – the frightening twilight world of unregulated semi-independent accommodation for children aged 16 years and over. We call for these homes to be regulated and inspected because, unlike children’s homes, they are currently ‘off radar’.
Shockingly, numbers of children living in this sort of accommodation has risen by 70% in the last decade. 80% of police forces expressed concerns about the increasing numbers living in this shady world and the dangers they face of falling prey to adults who want to exploit them for sex or to sell drugs. Children are often housed alongside adults who may be criminals or have addiction issues.
Overall, we concluded that out of area placements are not made with the best interests of the child in mind but to suit the needs of the market. Children’s wishes are very seldom central to how decisions are made.
They are being placed in children’s homes and semi-independent accommodation due to a lack of suitable provision and the uneven distribution of children’s homes across the country. A massive 75% of children’s homes are private and are concentrated in three main areas – North West, West Midlands and South East.
The children’s homes market is not fit for purpose and the Government must take action. Without a sea change in approach, councils and government will continue to be complicit in exacerbating the trauma of neglected and abused children and of unwittingly providing new recruits for County Lines. This national scandal must stop.
Ann Coffey is the independent MP for Stockport
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.