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A journey too far?


This week’s post is written by Jeni Page, a project manager in the third sector, currently working in children’s mental health in the UK. Her academic background is in conflict, forced migration, politics and anthropology. She is passionate about equality and improving outcomes for the most vulnerable. To follow Jeni on twitter, go to: @jeni_page.

In November 2012 nine men were convicted of the trafficking and sexual abuse of five young girls in Rochdale, North West England. Although just five gave evidence, police estimate the number abused was as high as 47. The majority of these girls lived in local care homes – residential settings where children are looked after by the state for their protection (as opposed to foster care). Since Rochdale, cases of child abuse have permeated the headlines in the UK with increasing frequency. The latest report from the Children’s Commissioner demonstrates a shocking acceptance by many young people of sexual exploitation either by gangs (street based groups of young people engaged in criminal activities) or informal groups that come together for the purpose of sexually exploiting children. By far, the most vulnerable are children ‘in care’. In fact, the Child Sexual Exploitation Inquiry, hurried along after Rochdale hit the headlines, suggests that some of these young victims are products of the care system itself. As I explore the ‘production’ of these young victims, I pose the question, could the state in these cases constitute a de facto trafficker?

This post unpicks the contradictions in the policy system that leave children in care openly vulnerable to exploitation. It looks at how children end up in care, the geography involved, the abuse, and the state’s role. It argues that local authorities knowingly send children into exploitative conditions and that a reassessment of decision making processes is essential to halt this de facto trafficking.

Two routes exist for children to enter the care system:

  • A voluntary agreement between parents and the Local Authority for the benefit of the child under Section 20 of the Children’s Act 2004. This may occur when the parent or caregiver is too ill to look after the child.
  • A care order issued by the court.

Care orders are issued when there are serious concerns for the child’s welfare such as violent and abusive parents. The point at which an order is issued, the child is in a crisis situation; these are generally children known to social services and usually under a child protection plan (an inter-agency plan setting out what must be done to protect a child from further harm). This point is the beginning of the child’s geographic journey; often, a vulnerable, confusing and scary start. The child is usually ‘taken into care’ with a matter of hours / days following a court order.

The geography:

For many children in residential care homes, child protection becomes an oxymoron. Of children in care, 45% live outside the local authority that has responsibility for them. It is a major flaw that, should any crisis emerge, results in a child’s social worker possibly being physically located at the other end of the country and unable to respond. In terms of the child’s vulnerability, this is crucial. Children find themselves isolated and cut off from all their previous networks, unsure of the system and their place in it, with no one to talk to. It is not surprising that children in care are three times more likely to run away than children living in the family home. This paradoxical situation was termed ‘a form of export trade‘ by Ann Coffey, Labour Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Runaway and Missing Children. The numbers of out-of-area placements is concerning as the child’s vulnerability increases dramatically the farther away from familiar support networks they are. Yet there seem to be limited local alternative options, creating a skewed market regarding the choice of care home providers, which results in serious consequences for the child’s well-being.

Why do children get placed so far away?

The answer lies in economics. Private companies run 75% of children’s care homes in the UK. Local authorities can commission any qualified provider, and private companies in many cases provide the most cost effective option. Yet no doubt for economic reasons also, a quarter of these care homes can be found in the north-west, an inexpensive (but generally more deprived) locality. For the young person relocated, there is considerable anxiety settling into a new home and living with new people, compounded by stigma when attending a new school. One in ten young people experience some kind of mental ill health; for children in care up to 60% have emotional and mental health problems. Not only do they go through significant trauma (either in the family home they were taken from or in the process of entering care itself), they become cut off from all familiar networks and support systems, leaving them feeling very alone. It’s not surprising that police figures show that an estimated 10,000 children go missing from care every year. In contrast, the government’s official data recorded only 930 missing children, symptomatic of unsystematic data collection across agencies according to the Inquiry into Children Who Go Missing from Care 2012.

The abuse:

The Children’s Commissioner report emphasises that the majority of child sexual exploitation victims live at home. However a disproportionate number of those children are in residential care. The ‘journey’ between meeting the perpetrators and rape is examined in a serious case review completed in November 2012, which found that the system created the right conditions (familiar support networks around the child removed, emotional and mental health trauma, close proximity to abusers, lack of joined up working by local agencies) for abuse to take place. These conditions are not uncommon, according to the July 2012 Inquiry. Local authorities knowingly move children into geographic areas with high risks of exploitation (in particular grooming), thus, arguably these state agencies become de-facto traffickers.

The state as a trafficker:

The UN lays out three core elements which must be present for an act to be defined as trafficking:

  1. The Act – Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons.
  2. The Means – Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim.
  3. The Purpose – For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.

In the UK, children taken into care are transported. They do not choose to go but are sent under state authority and power based on a court order. And, as the July 2012 report clearly states, the result is often exploitation. This disparity between knowledge of the Local Authority and the intention or obligation to protect the child cannot be excused. Although children are taken into care for their own protection, questions must be asked about the way placement decisions are made. In Rochdale itself there are 42 care homes, some of which are on the same street as convicted sex offenders. Clearly, risks are not appropriately assessed and mitigated, and economic reasons (mentioned above) skew decisions sending children into danger.

Where can changes be made?

The Munro Review of Child Protection, commissioned by the Department for Education and written by Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics and Political Science, used a systems analysis to make its reform recommendations. In this, it aimed to create a more child-centred protection system, whilst addressing bureaucracy and red tape, by looking at how the whole child protection system works and fits together. However this ‘whole system’ ideal is missing from care placement decisions. Post-Rochdale and post-Munro, will we see a reassessment of care placement decisions? A shift from decisions which effectively place children outside the system that is responsible for their protection? And towards a system which goes beyond the children protection ‘system’ characterised thus far, to take account of a broader range of social networks?

The latest report by the Children’s Commissioner highlights the early warning signs of child sexual exploitation. Calling for a greater awareness of these indicators, the report puts the onus on the whole system – from families and schools to police and local authorities – to look out for and take heed of them, e.g absence from school, age inappropriate friends, sexually inappropriate behaviour, receiving expensive gifts, or chaotic and disruptive behaviour.

But what about the role of government in instances of children transported into danger? What decision-making processes should be reassessed and take place to mitigate future state trafficking instances like Rochdale occurring?

It appears that local authorities unwittingly, or perhaps knowingly (depending upon the extensiveness of background checks conducted concerning child placement options), send children into exploitative conditions. It also appears that institutional checks and balances, such as ensuring that these decisions are taken by teams, disconnect the decision for placement from the actual relocation needs of the individual child. This occurs, for instance, by not fully taking into account or going against the views of social workers who know the child best; who advocate that the child not be removed far away. These factors, compounded by market incentives, are pulling children away from safety networks that may prevent this exploitation in the future.

As these horrific stories continue to be woven into the fabric of our daily news, the onus must be on the state to reassess its role in the continuing exploitation and trafficking of children under its care.



  1. carol says:

    I don’t recall having read an article on child exploitation that highlights how widespread it is and that emphasises how where a child is sent, can have frightening untold consequences.

  2. Philip Mattingley says:

    It is not before time that someone gave voice to these injustices and good for you jeni. I hope someone in government takes some heed of what you have written and takes all these points up with local government so that the whole system can be changed to make it safer for all children in care.

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