Vulnerable children ‘auctioned online’ in care-home system, experts warn
Vulnerable children are being “treated like cattle” and moved around care homes in England and Wales, with councils routinely inviting companies to compete for the contracts through an online bidding process, experts say.
A Guardian investigation has found evidence of councils putting the personal details of children in online adverts, including information about previous sexual abuse and gang involvement, while inviting bids from private companies for their care.
Care workers, teachers, MPs and charities have expressed concern that children’s care homes are in crisis, with private companies taking over and charging councils more than £7,000 a week – more than £360,000 a year per child – for residential placements.
Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, said it was “completely unacceptable” for local authorities “to promote or be seen to seemingly auction children in care” and said Ofsted would challenge any council that was not meeting its statutory responsibilities.
Local authorities usually source placements for children in their care through supply agreements with privately run providers, but an increasing number of cases that require specialist care and lack of supply has meant councils are forced to use an online tendering system to attract bids. Due to lack of alternatives, private providers can often dictate pricing for placements, the Guardian understands.
Knowsley council in Merseyside has published at least five ads this year that included personal details such as date of birth, family history and accounts of serious sexual abuse while inviting bids for the children’s care. They have since been removed after they were contacted by the Guardian.
One advert for the care of a 14-year-old boy includes lengthy details of the child’s historical sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual behaviour. Another advert for the residential care of a 15-year-old give details about his gang involvement, childhood trauma and difficult family relationships.
“The level of personal information included in the profile for these children was unnecessarily detailed,” Knowsley council admitted. It has since removed all of its previous advertisements from the system. They said placements were publicised in this way during “challenging market conditions”, describing it as normal practice for local authorities to use online adverts when necessary.
Ann Coffey, chair of the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and adults, said: “Children are being treated in a barbaric manner by being randomly auctioned out online to private companies ... This chaotic bidding system is not how the care needs of vulnerable children should be met. It is a catastrophic failure.”
She added that the system needed urgent reform, saying it now worked in the “interests of private providers but crucially not for the children themselves”.
Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said that while many private providers did a good job, a minority of these companies were “taking advantage of the system by charging disproportionately high fees to councils, which are often left with little choice when urgent action is needed to safeguard a child.”
Figures from Manchester city council show the weekly cost of residential care charged by a private provider was as much as £6,724 in 2018. At the council’s own homes it was £3,942.
Bramble said: “With councils facing a £3bn funding gap for children’s services by 2025, we feel it is immoral that significant private profit can be made on the back of vulnerable children and young people.”
This week, research published by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services highlighted the cost of placements for looked-after children as one of the biggest financial pressures on local authorities.
The marketisation of the children’s homes system, 73% of which are now privately owned, is also leading to a concentration of homes in the northwest and south-east of England due to low operating costs in these areas, according to experts.
Out-of-borough placements for children in care have risen from 2,250 in 2012 to 3,680 in March 2017, leading children as young as nine to go missing after being placed so far away from their home area, they warned.
▲ Anntoinette Bramble said some firms took advantage of the system