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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks investigation report


D.2: Children in care

2. In England, as at 31 March 2020, there were 80,010 children in care.[1] Of those children, 39 percent were aged 10 to 15 and 24 percent were 16 or over; 13 percent lived in children’s homes, secure units or semi-independent placements.[2] In Wales, on the same date, there were 7,170 children in care. Of those children, 37 percent were aged 10 to 15 and 15 percent were 16 or over; 7 percent lived in residential settings.[3]

3. Children in care are some of the most vulnerable children in society, due to both the experiences and situations that lead to them being placed in care and certain factors associated with being in care, such as going missing from care and being placed a long way from home.[4] In England in the year to March 2018, child sexual exploitation was identified in 3,160 assessments for children in care.[5] This equates to 16 percent of all the assessments which identified child sexual exploitation.[6]

4. Teenagers in care are more likely to require specialist or intensive support. They are 50 percent more likely (compared to children in care aged under 13) to have a statement of special educational needs (SEN) or an education, health and care plan (EHCP) and are 10 times more likely to have been attending a pupil referral unit (PRU).[7] Compared to younger children, teenagers in care are six times more likely to be victims of sexual exploitation.[8] Twelve percent of children in care aged 13 and over had sexual exploitation identified in their assessments.

5. A carefully chosen placement that meets the child’s particular needs can reduce the risk of sexual exploitation. However, some perpetrators of sexual exploitation deliberately target children in residential care. Staff cannot protect children in their care from every risk. Agencies must be realistic about what staff can do, while acknowledging and addressing failures. It is crucial that staff and other carers receive appropriate training, including in adopting trauma-informed approaches.[9]

6. The Inquiry sought information from the local authorities in the case study areas about the extent to which sexual exploitation harm and risks were recorded for children in their care. We were told that:

  • in 2018/19, 11 children in care in Durham were identified as at risk of sexual exploitation[10] (as an indication, there were 840 children in care in its area in March 2019);
  • between 2017 and 2019, 23 children in care in Swansea were referred to the child sexual exploitation team (in March 2019, there were 555 children in care);[11]
  • in March 2019, 111 children in care in Warwickshire were identified as being either at risk of or being sexually exploited (in March 2019, there were 722 children in care);[12]
  • in March 2019, four children in care in St Helens were identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation (in March 2019, there were 466 children in care);[13]
  • in 2018/19, there were 69 episodes in which children in care in Tower Hamlets were considered to be at risk of sexual exploitation, resulting in a child protection strategy meeting being convened (in March 2019, there were 329 children in care);[14] and
  • in March 2019, 37 children in care in Bristol were identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation (in March 2019, there were 617 children in care).[15]

7. The information about the numbers of children in care identified as sexually exploited or at heightened risk varies from area to area. It is not clear why that should be and the case study areas should consider this. The Inquiry cannot make comparisons or draw reliable conclusions about the data as a result of such marked disparities.

The experiences of the case study children who were in care

8. CS-A29 was initially taken into care in Durham on a temporary basis due to family circumstances. It appears that she continued to be sexually exploited after she became a looked after child.[16] On two occasions, CS-A29 was taken into police protection because Durham Constabulary did not consider her to be safe in the local authority children’s home in which she was living. She was said to be very unsettled there, repeatedly going missing, and boys in the children’s home were said to have engaged in harmful sexual behaviour with her.[17] The police expressed concern about the increased risk to CS-A29 and suggested that a foster placement was critical but none was said to be available.[18]

9. CS-A50 was sexually exploited for almost a year when aged 13. During that time, she moved between the homes of her parents and extended family and there was no responsible adult taking care of her.[19] However, when she became a child in the care of Durham County Council a choice of placements was available for her and she was involved in the selection of her permanent foster carer. Within two months, the assessed risk of sexual exploitation to CS-A50 was reduced to low. Within a year, CS-A50 had no further episodes of going missing. It was considered that the foster placement had a significant positive impact on her life.[20]

10. Three children in the case studies from Swansea were in care. CS-A25 was prematurely removed from the monitoring of the child sexual exploitation protocol towards the end of 2018, before she went into care.[21] CS-A220 was retraumatised by the behaviour of other children in her residential placement and a long delay in finding a suitable supported accommodation place for her adversely affected her mental health.[22] CS-A56 continued to be sexually exploited by her perpetrators while she was in care.[23] However, there was evidence of good practice in the provision of accommodation and support to CS-A220 and CS-A56 when they were in transition to leave care.[24]

11. From May 2016 to August 2019, CS-A1 was in care in Warwickshire for several reasons, including episodes of going missing.[25] A review in June 2016 noted that it was unfortunate that CS-A1 had not been found a stable placement – as a result, her education and access to support services were not settled.[26] Warwickshire Police considered that she should be placed out of area to protect her but Warwickshire County Council disagreed.[27] She was then accommodated in 14 different foster placements – four were with independent providers and 10 were local authority placements (none of which were child sexual exploitation specialist placements). In two placements, CS-A1 was located with other children who regularly went missing. In one, she was placed with an older child who introduced her to a network of older people and another placement was in the geographic location where CS-A1 was being sexually exploited – she went missing 48 times while in this placement.[28] In May 2018, CS-A1 was placed in a children’s home, which her mother considered to be her daughter’s most positive placement, with a more structured environment and staff who would follow her if she went missing.[29] During the two years taken by Warwickshire County Council to identify and provide a suitable protective placement for CS-A1, she continued to be sexually exploited. Warwickshire County Council explained that they found it difficult to identify suitable placements owing to CS-A1’s complex needs and the absence of suitable placements. It considered that this is a national issue that requires government action to ensure that there are sufficient suitable placement options.[30] In any event, this demonstrates an important weakness in the Warwickshire placement regime.

12. CS-A26 was in the care of St Helens Council. She had multiple episodes of going missing and was assessed as being at very high risk of child sexual exploitation. The potential harm to her increased when CS-A26 was placed in residential care due to the unsuitability of her initial placement.[31] There was no clear evidence of a strategy to address the high number of episodes of going missing that contributed to the risk to CS-A26. Merseyside Police accepted that, when looking at the records relating to CS-A26, it was difficult to identify what disruption activity was carried out around the missing episodes in the 2015–16 period.[32] They also accepted that there were times when CS-A26 was found in the company of adults and that there were “potentially opportunities where we should have taken more positive action”.[33]

13. CS-A71 was also in the care of St Helens Council. She was groomed online and sexually exploited by adults she travelled to meet in other areas. She took a younger, 13-year-old child in care with her and that child was also exploited. CS-A71 was exploited across three police force boundaries. When she was placed out of area, there was no evidence that she was monitored by multi-agency meetings in those areas.[34] The placements and assessment of CS-A71 failed to keep her safe.

14. CS-A22 was placed out of the Tower Hamlets area for a year and was then brought back to the borough. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets accepted that not enough was done to prepare CS-A22 or her parent for her return and that the school which she was due to attend was not made aware of her vulnerability.[35] It was reported that CS-A22 was sexually exploited upon her return home and she subsequently disclosed further sexual assaults.[36] She was later placed out of area in another specialist placement.[37]

15. CS-A302 had several out-of-area placements while in the care of Bristol City Council and continued to be sexually exploited whilst in those placements.[38] Bristol City Council was able eventually to identify a specialist out-of-area placement at a distance, which was successful.[39] CS-A302 considered that the specialist placement had “saved my life”.[40]

Out-of-area placements

16. In recent years, local authorities in England have increasingly placed children in care outside of their geographical area.[41] From March 2018 to March 2019, the proportion of children placed out of area rose from 37 percent to 41 percent, with 20 percent of children living in distant placements. The proportion remained at 41 percent in March 2020.[42] In Wales, 36 percent of children were placed out of area in March 2019; as at March 2020, the figure had reduced to 30 percent.[43]

17. Research has shown that out-of-area placements, including those in secure units, can be beneficial for some children, particularly if the child is well supported and consulted about the decision, and the placement addresses problems as the child sees them. There may be many valid reasons for placing a child out of area, including in an emergency or to access therapeutic support. Being entirely removed from an area may also be appropriate, for example, for some children who have already been sexually exploited or who are at risk of exploitation.

18. For approximately 50 percent of children, however, a placement outside their home area had a negative impact.[44] Ofsted recognised that some older children with complex needs were being placed away from home because of a lack of suitable local placements, which “is not always in the best interests of the child”.[45]

19. There are many other circumstances where out-of-area placements are unsuitable for those identified as being at risk of or harmed by child sexual exploitation because:

  • placing authorities do not always take account of local risks of exploitation, potentially exposing the child to further harm;
  • children placed out of area face a heightened risk of going missing and yet robust plans to address this are not always in place;
  • children are disadvantaged if agreement is not reached about how their education, health and any therapeutic needs will be met; and
  • if perpetrators are not disrupted, they may harm the child during the out-of-area placement and when the child returns home. They will also pose a threat to other children in the local area.[46]

20. Data were requested from the local authorities about the numbers of sexually exploited children placed outside their home area:

  • Durham: Numbers were not provided, other than that seven children at risk of sexual exploitation were placed in unregulated placements outside Durham in the two years to March 2019;[47]
  • Swansea: It was not possible to determine the numbers from the data provided;[48]
  • Warwickshire: 33 children in 2018/19 and 49 children in 2019/20;[49]
  • St Helens: Numbers were not provided for children placed in neighbouring areas but seven children were placed over 30 miles away (April 2017 to end December 2020);
  • Tower Hamlets: 130 children were placed out of the borough at March 2020, 13 of whom were at a distance of more than 20 miles;[50] and
  • Bristol: 14 children were placed outside Bristol in 2018/19, seven of whom were placed in adjoining local authority areas.[51]

21. On the basis of the information provided, it was not clear whether out-of-area placements met children’s needs or further increased exposure to sexual exploitation risks and harm. There was evidence of sexual exploitation occurring or continuing when a child was placed out of area.[52] There also appeared to be a “national problem” of authorities not being aware of children placed within their areas by others, including children identified as at high risk of sexual exploitation.[53]

22. The Inquiry saw some non-compliance with procedures intended to reduce the risks of out-of-area placements. For example, when a Swansea child is placed out of area, the policy stated that there should be a cross-border meeting at which South Wales Police will brief the new force (and sometimes the relevant social worker) and provide an intelligence package including missing data and risk factors. However, such meetings do not always take place.[54]

23. Warwickshire County Council appeared to have comprehensive procedures for out-of-area placements. Recently updated guidance made clear that, when selecting placements, the risk of sexual exploitation had to be considered; where possible, locations were risk assessed. It was recognised that consultation and information-sharing should include the police. Where children were placed more than 20 miles from home, out-of-county agreements indicating that the placement is suitable and safe for the child were to be routinely sought. Warwickshire County Council also described the steps it takes in managing sexual exploitation risks to children placed in its area by other councils, which included carrying out return home interviews and following up sexual exploitation concerns.[55]

24. St Helens Council and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets also described policies aimed at ensuring the ongoing responsibility of the ‘home’ local authority or police force for children placed out of area who are identified as at risk of sexual exploitation.[56]

25. Given concerns about the cross-border movement of children and perpetrators, Bristol City Council has taken steps to pool resources with neighbouring authorities so that Barnardo’s can provide support services to children on a regional basis and make regular checks on children. Operation Topaz (Avon and Somerset Police’s child exploitation disruption team) also covers the region.[57]

26. In Ofsted’s view, a coordinated strategy at a national level is required to manage the supply of children’s home places, including consideration of how private and voluntary providers, local authorities and others can be guided and incentivised to open homes where they are most needed. Otherwise, placements that do not meet the needs of vulnerable children, including those at risk of sexual exploitation, will continue.[58]

27. As there are particular risks when moving sexually exploited children across boundaries, there should be better collaboration between placing and host authorities, as well as police forces. There is a need for strengthened statutory guidance on out-of-area placements that deals specifically with sexually exploited children.

Unregulated placements

28. Under the Care Standards Act 2000, services that provide accommodation and care for young people under the age of 18 are required to register with Ofsted. If accommodation without care is provided, the placement is considered ‘unregulated’.

29. Some unregulated placements provide positive support to 16 and 17-year-olds in becoming independent. However, these placements can be in temporary or isolated settings such as mobile homes, barges, caravans, hostels or even tents.[59] There is often no or limited support provided and the level of supervision by staff varies.[60] These features of unregulated placements increase the vulnerability and exposure of often lonely children, who may become more susceptible to grooming behaviours and child sexual exploitation.

30. At the time of the public hearings, in all but one of the case study areas, use of unregulated placements for sexually exploited children was minimal, ranging from zero to four children.[61] There was some evidence of children identified as being at risk of sexual exploitation being placed in unregulated placements between 2017 and 2019.[62] There was also evidence of children becoming exposed to risk of sexual exploitation after a move to an unregulated placement.[63]

31. From September 2021, in accordance with new regulations, those under 16 years old cannot be placed in unregulated accommodation.[64] The government has also consulted on new standards for the use of such accommodation for children in care aged 16 and 17, “overseen by an Ofsted-led registration and inspection regime”.[65] The Children’s Commissioner has called for the use of unregulated accommodation to be banned for all those under 18.[66]

32. The use of unsupervised, unregulated accommodation for children in care aged 16 and 17 who are experiencing, or are at risk of experiencing, sexual exploitation remains a serious concern and must be stopped by the Department for Education. New standards for the use of such accommodation must include measures to reduce the risk of sexual exploitation faced by children in these placements.


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