As the Rochdale horror revealed, we need to overhaul how we care for our most troubled children, By Edward Timpson
Next month will mark the first anniversary of the sentencing of nine men from Rochdale who were convicted of systematically grooming and abusing scores of vulnerable young girls.
For one girl, her unimaginable ordeal began when she was placed in a privately run children’s home, miles away from the council responsible for her care.
Here, in this unfamiliar town, far from family and friends, she was lured from the protection of those responsible for her care by men who promised her free alcohol, cigarettes, and affection, before subjecting her to horrific sexual assaults. Her story has acted as a warning signal about the number of fundamental flaws that still exist in some children’s homes today.
An "out of sight, out of mind" culture that has led to thousands of the most vulnerable children being placed at great distance from their home towns.
A growing collection of evidence shows that huge numbers of children are going missing time and time again from their place of care.
It’s shameful that all too often there is a tendency to apply much lower standards and aspirations to children in care – whether it be safety, a suitable home environment, or educational attainment – than would ever be thought acceptable for others.
No ordinary parent would put up with their children being moved hundreds of miles away from their home, moving schools every term, or going missing again and again. Yet too often this has somehow been regarded as inevitable for children in care. This is simply not good enough.
My ministerial colleagues and I have been clear about the need to challenge and reform this system, so that children are given the highest quality care and support in a stable and secure home where they can thrive. We want the care system to propel them on to a life full of achievement and self-belief; not leave them feeling isolated, unsupported and vulnerable.
That’s why, last year, we set up expert groups to advise us on reform of the children’s home system, and today I can announce a series of reforms designed to ensure an ‘out of sight out of mind’ never again applies to a child in the care of the state.
We have already changed the rules so that Ofsted can share the names and addresses of children’s homes with the police.
And this June, we will consult on introducing new responsibilities for councils so that by December 2013 a decision to place a child in care far from their home can only be made by a senior official. They will have to be satisfied that the placement is in the child’s best interest and will meet their specific needs.
These new rules will set out a requirement for the council to consult with the local area before they place a child in a home, to satisfy themselves about the quality and location of the home and to notify them when the child is placed and when they move.
We will strengthen the requirements on children’s homes to work with their local police forces to prevent children from going missing.
And from April 2014, we will be collecting national data for all children missing from care, not just those missing for 24 hours. It is simply unacceptable that many homes seem unable to get a grip on how many of their children are going missing, nor for alarms to be raised and robust action to be taken when young people go missing from care on multiple occasions.
New rules will also be introduced for children’s homes. These will include a duty on homes to notify local councils when children move in from other local authority areas and when they leave the home.
There will also be a requirement for children’s homes providers to carry out a risk assessment of an area, with the police and local council, before opening a home, with registration being refused or suspended where the area is deemed unsafe. If the area isn’t safe, children’s homes shouldn’t be there.
And finally, the workforce. A skilled workforce is crucial if we are to change the life chances of some of our most disadvantaged children.
We know that children placed in children’s homes are more likely to have behavioural problems. Research suggests that around a third of children in residential care homes will also have special educational needs and that they are six times more likely to have mental health concerns. This makes caring for them particularly challenging.
While there is no doubt that many care home staff display great commitment and relentless dedication in providing a stable and caring environment for these children, the simple fact is that quality matters.
This summer we will be carrying out a comprehensive review of the training, qualifications and career pathways for existing and new staff working in children’s homes, which will inform the development of a training and qualifications framework for the sector.
In the meantime, from the end of this year we will strengthen the current rules, requiring existing staff in homes to have completed minimum qualifications within a set period of time, so that they feel more confident and able to care for children with complex needs.
As someone with an adopted brother who came to live with our family from a children’s home, I’m all too well aware of the need for such settings to have the very best care we can offer.
And so over the coming months, I am determined to work together with others to help deliver more radical and fundamental improvements in how we care for some of our most troubled children.
I have set out here today the first steps of reform to ensure our most vulnerable children are better protected. I know this will take time and present challenges along the way. But I want us to see in future that Rochdale was not the beginning of these terrible stories about children in care – but the beginning of the end of them.
Edward Timpson is the Conservative MP for Crewe and Nantwich