On February 2nd 2022, Anne Longfield, Chair of the Commission on Young Lives, delivered a speech to Inside Government's 'Children's Social Care Forum'.
I want to start by telling you about Michael.
He's fifteen-years-old and is due in court any day now, charged with stabbing another teenager over a territorial dispute. Michael and his mother are victims of domestic violence. His Mum is also an alcoholic. Michael's school attendance became sporadic, and he was referred to social services over ten times in three years. But he never received any sustained intervention. Instead, the first time the police intervened, they removed Michael from his home, but because social services were swamped, he was taken into care for only one night, then sent back to his family.
Being consistently out of school made Michael vulnerable to his local gang. He was groomed by them, made to feel important, given a sense of status and some money. Before long he was in a drug debt and being forced to deliver drugs in another gang's territory. He started carrying a knife and he ended up stabbing another boy whilst delivering drugs. He is very likely to receive a custodial sentence.
Michael is one of the many thousands of children who fall through the gaps in the education or care systems, and end up exploited by gangs, organised criminals or abusers. Last year in England there were over 12,000 referrals to social services where gangs were a concern. And that's just the tip of the iceberg.
Our response to helping these children avoid this fate is so often inadequate. We are poor on identification and data sharing, poor on communication, and uncoordinated.
At the same time, the organised criminals who exploit vulnerable children like Michael are coordinated. Their business model relies on children, and they will use coercion, control and manipulation to push them into criminal activity. They are highly skilled at identifying and entrapping children who often become too scared to walk away.
Every child at risk needs a ring of protection around them. And those in care are particularly vulnerable. Yet too often they are not just being failed - we are delivering them directly to criminals and groomers.
As Children's Commissioner for England for six years I shone a spotlight on the experiences of these children and, after my term ended last February, I was determined to carry on that work. It was unfinished business for me.
In September last year, I launched the 'Commission on Young Lives', a year-long commission that seeks to fight back with coordinated national action that can transform the outcomes of these marginalised teenagers.
The Commission is hosted and supported by the Oasis Charitable Trust, who have worked in and with communities and empowered families and children for decades.
Our commission panel includes experts with lived experience of gangs and youth work, children's mental health specialists, the police, and those with a strong track record of delivery like Baroness Casey and Sir Kevan Collins.
We are solutions-focused, and our aim is to devise a new and affordable national system of support to prevent crisis and to improve the life chances of young people at risk of getting into trouble with the law.
We are looking at how to improve family support, children's mental health services, prevent exclusions, improve SEN support, as well as issues around the use social media.
But we started with children's social care.
Our first report, 'Out of Harm's Way', published in December looks at how we can break the relationship between being in care or on the edge of care, and exploitation and criminalisation.
In March 2021, there were 80,850 children in care in England out of total a population of around 12 million children. Yet the adverse outcomes for many of these children are totally disproportionate to their size of the child population.
Almost one in three women in prison and almost a quarter of men in prison spent time in care as a child. In 2016, children in care were six times more likely to be sanctioned for an offence than children in the general population.
Contact with the justice system is far more likely to be experienced by those who have been in care - alongside other factors like poverty, having special educational needs, exclusion, neglect and mental health problems.
Our children's care population is rising and currently we have the highest number of children in care on record.
There has been a 7% increase in referrals to children's social care and a 4% increase in the number of children deemed to be in need over the last decade. At the same time there has been a 124% increase in Section 47 investigations and a 32% increase in child protection plans.
So social services' caseloads are increasing, and so too is the cost. The average costs of care for some teenagers with the most complex needs is a staggering £200,000 per year. And as the cost of this care crisis escalates, it means there are fewer funds are available for early intervention and prevention.
Of course, there is a huge amount of excellent work being done in the care sector - brilliant foster carers, excellent care providers, adoptive parents, those providing support, love and stability to vulnerable children in their care. We need to recognise too that most children growing up in care are doing well.
But not all.
And for some, particularly those entering care as teenagers, the system fails to meet their needs - or worse puts them in even greater danger.
It is astonishing that we are taking into care teenagers because they are at risk of exploitation, or because they have been involved in serious violence or crime, but then putting some of them back into danger again - moving them around the country, housing them in poor quality and often dangerous accommodation, then providing inadequate support to them as care-leavers.
Much of this recent rise in numbers is driven by the increase in teenagers on the edge of care or entering care because their parents are unable to protect them. 10-15-year-olds are now the fastest growing group of children entering care and 16-and-17-year-olds now make up 23% of children in care.
This is a major change for a care system designed for younger children.
As our report makes clear, at this late stage of crisis, teenagers will be at considerable risk and require significant levels of support and protection.
However, it is also clear from all our evidence that in too many places the care system is ill-equipped to provide both these things.
Relying primarily on family-based foster care designed for younger children, the system has failed to adapt to the needs of the growing number of teenagers in care who are less likely to wish or be able to live in normal family care.
The reliance on a limited number of residential places, where demand significantly outstrips supply, has also had far-ranging consequences that put many teenagers at increased risk whilst also driving costs sky-high.
We are told time and time again how the chronic shortage of appropriate care places for teenagers, which are now delivered primarily by a handful of big private chains, drive a range of dysfunctions in the so-called children's home market, leaving some children with the most complex needs at risk.
Stand back from it and it is incomprehensible how a children's system as ill-suited to protect very vulnerable teenagers has been allowed to continue for so long without major reform.
The consequence is a growing number of deep-rooted problems, which can put vulnerable children at risk.
Firstly, teenagers in care are too often being sent far from their home area, sometimes to neighbourhoods that have high levels of crime.
The homes they are sent to are disproportionately located in the parts of the country where accommodation is cheaper, with particular shortages in London and the South East.
This means that many teenagers in crisis are moved away from the place they know, and away from their family, their friends and school, stripping them of their support networks and people they trust and rely on. Not surprisingly, this can leave them feeling confused and out of place.
Police mapping shows how many children's homes are located in areas of high crime, making it doubly dangerous for teenagers who are at risk of exploitation.
Secondly, teenagers in care are being moved too frequently. Again, the shortage of places and reliance on a small number of large private providers leads to a 'providers' market where standard places are offered and will always be taken whether they meet the particular needs of the child or not.
The result is that teenagers with the highest needs are most likely to be moved often as the placement breaks down or to take a child with less complex needs; again, preventing children from forming relationships and disrupting their education.
Thirdly, some teenagers in care are placed in provision that is not regulated, leaving them without care, sometimes in dangerous accommodation and sometimes at risk of organised crime.
It is staggering that the state as a parent continues to house vulnerable teenagers under 18 in accommodation like this. We have even heard of criminal gangs being tipped off from within local authorities when vulnerable children are moved into unregulated accommodation, because of the opportunity this can bring for cuckooing or other exploitation.
The introduction of new national standards for unregulated provision is likely to increase the quality of this kind of accommodation over time. However, semi-independent living remains unsuitable for exploited teenagers so at risk of harm that they are removed from the care of their parents to protect them.
This failing system is also eye-wateringly expensive. The average cost of a residential place is over £4,000 per week; a proportion of which will be fuelling the profit margins of the larger chains.
It is also a system that is particularly failing many Black boys. Black boys in care are more likely to go on and enter the youth justice system. The problem is worsening as the number of Black boys going into care rises.
Black boys, who are already disproportionately affected by gang criminal exploitation, are often receiving different services, including police responses. And teenage Black boys are less likely to be seen as victims and more likely to be viewed as offenders.
Black children are already more likely to be in care compared with their share of the under-18 population, while the number of Black children in care who were adopted dropped by 50% between 2015 and 2019.
So from the response to identification to child protection and care support, the system is inadequate and inappropriate and vulnerable teenagers are carrying the burden of risk.
What can we do to change it?
A new care offer is needed for our vulnerable teenagers and the Independent Review of Children's Social Care provides the opportunity and mechanism for making that happen. We have sent our recommendations to them.
The immediate changes that need to happen must start with the mechanisms to identify teenagers at risk of harm.
Data, information, planning and co-ordination of response need to be at the forefront of scrutiny by agencies and politicians both nationally and locally. This is urgent and will be vital to identifying both individuals who need protection but also where the gaps in support are and where resources are needed as a priority.
Interventions to protect teenagers already being exploited need to be a priority for the care system. There need to be creative new approaches to family intervention and support, pre-care 'home from home' that can add support and accommodation when needed and wrap-around protection that strengthens families' ability to protect their teenagers with intensive support that keeps them at home.
Where effective programmes such as North Yorkshire's "No Wrong Door" are in place they should be extended and built upon.
New care home models need to be urgently developed that keep children at their local school and in communities they know and where they have support.
New local community children's homes would be able to work therapeutically and long term with children and their families, responding to their needs.
These local homes, commissioned and led by local authorities in partnership with health, schools and charities have the potential to create a new kind of support for vulnerable teenagers that provides protection whilst strengthening families. Government funds for residential care should prioritise these developments and local councils should consider using their capital funds as part of a long-term business case to improve effective support and reduce costs.
New models of specialist foster care should be developed for teenagers at risk, working intensively with families and enabling models of shared care. I am particularly keen to explore how experienced youth workers can become foster carers, bringing their expertise in understanding and engaging with young people, building relationships and supporting teenagers' development.
We also need better leadership from central Government. I want to see the Prime Minister establishing a "vulnerable teenagers at risk" ministerial taskforce to continue the work of the now defunct Serious Violence Taskforce. Led by the Education Secretary, it should include senior ministers from the Home Office, Treasury, Cabinet Office, Department of Levelling Up, Department of Health and the Ministry of Justice. Its priorities should be action in relation to accommodation and support for teenagers in care, support for vulnerable families with teens, action to reduce teenage violence and crime, a focus on school inclusion, co-ordinated mental health support and a invest to save review on national public spending in relation to vulnerable teenagers.
I'd also like to see the Department for Education establishing a "teenagers out of harm programme" which guarantees teenagers are not placed in inappropriate and dangerous care placements. This should include making sure councils do not place vulnerable teenagers under 18 in any provision where they are not cared for and protected, and where they are at risk of exploitation and harm.
Unregulated care as it is delivered today could no longer be used for teenagers under 18.
The ban on using unregulated provision for children under 16s should be extended to under 18s to formalise this. Councils should also be precluded from placing teenagers in provision in unsafe areas of high violence that have been identified as danger zones by the police.
I would like to see the Treasury extending funding for Violence Reduction units and the Young Adder project. This would ensure that programmes are able to operate in all areas of high disadvantage and provide long-term interventions alongside other initiatives including those supported and evaluated by the Youth Endowment Fund.
I'd also like to see the Treasury extending new funding for youth provision in the community to create safe, exciting and supporting environments for young people in areas of high risk.
And the Supporting Families programme and Family Hubs should prioritise support for vulnerable children with a particular emphasis on supporting families with teenagers at risk.
This package of reforms would provide early identification and a joined-up approach, new help for teenagers in need, a new teenager in care safe and stable care offer, new local residential care homes and hubs, and would make teenagers at risk a priority for intervention programmes.
There is no doubt that resetting children's social care like this will take determined action and funding, but it is clear that the benefits will not only be to those vulnerable teenagers, but also to the public purse.
The current system is no longer sustainable. It is unfit for purpose. We are making it too easy for criminals to exploit our teenagers, and a care system that is supposed to keep children safe is actually handing some children over to those who wish to exploit them.
We have to stop this happening. These are young lives with promise ahead of them, and we all have a duty to protect them and nurture them to succeed.