Joanna Rossiter

The UK is failing to protect looked-after children

The UK is failing to protect looked-after children
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After coming under fire for its timid reporting of the Telford and Oxford grooming scandals, the BBC seems to have taken stock: this week, it successfully exposed the grooming of looked-after teenagers living on their own.

According to Newsnight thousands of vulnerable young people are being placed in unregistered, independent accommodation from the age of sixteen, leaving them open to abuse from opportunistic grooming gangs. The phrase ‘looked-after’ could hardly ring less true. But this BBC report only strikes the tip of the iceberg. Not only are looked-after children at risk of abuse, they’re also more likely to become homeless or end up behind bars.

What is surprising is the government’s tin-eared response to the BBC’s revelations. It said that children in care 'deserve good quality accommodation'. This reduces the issue to a matter of resources and avoids the nub of the problem: the lack of a family support network. It’s far easier to provide bricks and mortar than it is to do the hard work of persuading more families to foster older children, and yet the government is letting children down on both fronts.

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said in response to the BBC that he recently wrote to all Directors of Children's Services to remind them of their obligation to provide suitable accommodation to those in care. The fact he thought a letter alone was an adequate response doesn't fill one with confidence that this issue is being given the attention it deserves in Whitehall.

As the BBC reported, one girl was left to fend for herself in an unheated flat with only a mattress to sleep on and no duvet or sheets. She actively sought out individuals who she knew would groom her because she felt isolated. Grooming gangs offer these teenagers a warped sense of belonging and family, even status, at a time when they have no real family to call their own.

Looked-after young people don’t just need safe accommodation; they need trusted adults in their lives who are close enough to them to protect them from abuse. It's true that some foster placements break down and that independent accommodation is needed as a stopgap but for the vast majority of young people, fostering is the only sense of family they have. As one eighteen year old in foster care starkly put it: ‘without fostering there is no love.’

Faced with a chronic shortage of foster families for teenagers and a geographical mismatch between available families and children, is it any wonder that social workers are placing more young people into independent living? Looked-after children are legally allowed to live on their own from the age of 16 and yet there’s no incentive for government to change the law: it would only heighten the need for more fostering placements – a demand they’re currently struggling to meet. But why not offer more fostering to over 16s if it reduces the chance of abuse? Yes, young people need to learn to be independent, but at 16, with only periodic visits from a social worker? Even without the trauma that growing up in care often creates, this would be a tall order for many 16 year olds.

But recruitment of enough foster families is an ongoing challenge, especially for teenagers. Foster families receive little financial or public recognition which makes recruitment a challenge. One would never question a nurse’s dedication because she draws a salary from the NHS and yet there remains a sense that foster families shouldn’t be seeking remuneration for their care. The housing crisis also means that fewer families are in the position to offer a spare room for a child.

It’s clear the government is firefighting rather than tackling the root of the problem. 75 per cent of the money spent annually on looked after children is assigned to residential care. Placing children in this type of care is incredibly costly. And yet the government continues to spend the majority of its funds on the most expensive and least effective solution. This is in spite of the fact that the government’s own 2018 Stocktake on fostering showed that looked-after children do best in family settings.

Charities like Home for Good have successfully tapped into communities of potential carers and promoted fostering as a worthwhile vocation. It’s high time the government embarked on its own recruitment drive – in doing so, it would reduce costs and restore meaning to the phrase ‘looked-after’ for children and young people in need of a family.