Vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren ‘auc­tioned on­line’ in care-home sys­tem, ex­perts warn

The Guardian - - NATIONAL - Pa­trick Green­field Sarah Marsh

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

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