Children living in privately-run care homes in Lancashire – but who come from other parts of the country – sometimes go missing or become victims of crime before police even know they have arrived here, councillors have been told.
Local authorities can send looked-after children to homes beyond their borders – either when it is deemed in the child’s best interests or because of limited accommodation space in their own areas. In some cases, that involves placing children in independent care homes, rather than those run by councils.
A meeting of Lancashire County Council’s external scrutiny committee heard a call for the creation of a register of such establishments in the county to help police keep better track of their residents.
Robert Ruston, partnerships officer for Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, described the lack of a definitive list as “a real problem”.
“I know there have been instances [in which] young people either get involved in crime, become victims or go missing – [and] that is the first time that they come to the attention of the constabulary.
“Obviously, where the police are aware of [children’s] homes in an area they will…keep that record, but there is no formal obligation on independent providers to report that they have set up a home in Lancashire – and there are certain parts of the county that have a quite a high number of [them].
“Having discussed [it] with colleagues at Lancashire Constabulary and safeguarding [teams], everyone says a register would be great, but unfortunately, it doesn’t exist,” Mr. Ruston added.
He was responding to a concern raised by committee member Anne Cheetham, who said vulnerable children can “find themselves plonked in an area which they know nothing about and, therefore, they run away”.
Lancashire County Council said a “reciprocal arrangement” with local authorities across the country meant that any child known to a youth offending team (YOT) elsewhere should be flagged up to the Lancashire YOT upon their arrival in the county.
Lancashire Constabulary declined to comment on the issue, but the organisation which represents private children’s homes said it would be “difficult to understand” if police were being left out of the loop, whatever the background of the individual child.
“When any young person is being considered for a placement in another local authority, there is a discussion between the two councils as to the young person and the placement,” Jonathan Stanley, chief executive of the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA), said.
“Every area has multi-agency safeguarding arrangements that allow for information sharing. These often include a police point of contact for homes and regular meetings regarding important issues such as missing persons or child sexual exploitation.
“[This] makes for close communication and cooperation between all involved in the care and protection of young people, especially at a neighbourhood level,” he added.
In a statement, Barbara Bath, Lancashire County Council’s head of children’s residential and youth offending services, said that when Lancashire children are placed elsewhere in the country, the council has “a duty to notify the receiving authority…and we also inform health and education services”.
“This is a reciprocal arrangement, so authorities placing in [Lancashire] should do the same.”
All residential accommodation which meets the definition of a children’s home has to be registered with the regulator OFSTED – which did not respond to a request for comment on the issues raised in Lancashire.
Government legislation places a duty on a variety of agencies to “have regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children”. These include local authorities, police forces and youth offending teams who should have in place “arrangements which set out clearly the processes for sharing information with…safeguarding partners”.
Figures presented to a recent meeting of Lancashire County Council’s children’s services scrutiny committee revealed that the authority currently has 433 of its own looked-after children placed outside of its boundaries.
Sixty-nine percent of them are housed by neighbouring authorities – which include the standalone councils in Blackpool and Blackburn, thereby keeping them within geographical Lancashire.
Eighty-five percent are living somewhere in the North West, with the remaining 15 percent in other parts of the country.