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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual exploitation by organised networks Investigation Report

Contents

G.5: Return home interviews

25. Statutory guidance in England provides that when a child is found, an RHI should be offered to the child (although there is no requirement that the child participates in it). This should be conducted within 72 hours of the child returning to their home or care setting.[1] RHIs are not a statutory requirement in Wales but there is an expectation on the part of the Welsh government that they will be offered after a child has three episodes of going missing.[2]

26. Statutory guidance in England states that RHIs should be conducted by someone who is not involved in caring for the child, is trained to carry out these interviews and is able to follow up any actions that emerge.[3] Ideally, RHIs should be carried out by a designated team of practitioners who can develop relationships with the children.[4]

27. There is considerable professional debate about the optimal timing of RHIs and who should carry them out (for example, an independent person or someone the child knows and trusts).[5] Ms Ann James from Bristol City Council told us that the RHI process was “highly bureaucratic” and that:

for children who perhaps are the ones we are most concerned about who have repeated missing episodes, that that process can feel meaningless for them, and we also know that perpetrators – they know our processes and they may bring pressure to bear on those young people not to engage in a Return Home Interview”.[6]

If a child has been sexually exploited while missing, he or she may have immediate needs for medical treatment, food and shelter and may be physically unable to participate in an RHI until they have had time to recover.[7]

28. In three of the case study areas specialist agencies have been commissioned to carry out RHIs (Catch22 in St Helens, the Children’s Society in Tower Hamlets and Barnardo’s Safe Choices in Bristol – unless the child already has an allocated social worker, in which case they will carry out the RHI).[8]

29. An RHI is an important opportunity to demonstrate to a sexually exploited child that there is a concern for his or her welfare, to develop a relationship with the child and to build a support and protection plan. It can also be a vital way of gathering relevant information about sexual exploitation that has occurred or particular factors about the missing episode indicating potential harm or a heightened risk of exploitation.[9]

30. However, Ofsted has noted that provision for missing children varies across local authorities in England.[10] Some children receive intensive and holistic support and intervention plans, whereas others receive only a single RHI.[11] The Care Inspectorate Wales has found that ‘debrief’ meetings with children are not always called, as expected, after three occasions of going missing.[12]

31. In the case study areas, performance was variable in terms of the proportion of RHIs offered and taken up.

31.1. In Durham, a 2019 audit found that some RHIs missed key warning signs of exploitation and failed to note steps taken to safeguard children when “high risk activity” was disclosed.[13] The statutory guidance to the effect that an RHI should be offered after every episode of a child going missing was not implemented until November 2019.[14] Information was supplied showing the percentage of total police missing reports which resulted in an RHI. For monitoring purposes, however, a more relevant figure would be how many RHIs were conducted for children referred by the police because of safeguarding concerns and this was not provided.[15]

31.2. In Swansea, the 2019–20 Annual Report for the West Glamorgan Safeguarding Board noted that “qualitative data i.e. that found in Return Home Interviews (RHI) is not routinely shared or analysed by agencies”.[16] It also noted that “only those Children and Young People reported missing and perceived as medium to high risk receive a RHI”.[17]

31.3. In the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, an internal audit from January to December 2019 of 40 young people who regularly went missing identified that the quality of RHIs needed to improve, that there needed to be better engagement and work with young people and that episodes of children going missing were not routinely discussed or explored with the Independent Review Officer.[18] In March and July 2020, two multi-agency audits again found that the quality of RHIs needed to improve, the causes of episodes of children going missing were not always understood and information obtained from RHIs was not always used in safety planning.[19] Separately, the Children’s Society highlighted that the recommendations it made were not being followed, such that “young people saw no point in talking to us”.[20]

31.4. Ms James accepted that, in Bristol, completion of RHIs was at a very low level in April 2018, when only 29 percent of children who went missing accepted an RHI. In light of this, Bristol City Council introduced a missing from care coordinator and a reducing offending of children in care officer to track looked after children who go missing and report internally about whether they are at risk of exploitation. As a result of improvement action, 92 percent of 114 eligible children were offered an RHI in June 2020 and 52 percent of them accepted one.[21]

32. The provision of RHIs for children placed out of area has presented particular challenges to placing councils who are responsible for arranging for them to be done. Research has shown that data on carrying out RHIs for children living away from home are limited. Children placed out of area were more likely to have their RHI conducted by a social worker rather than a designated RHI service. This led to delays and inadequate recording of information from the interview.[22] High numbers of children were moving between out-of-area care placements.[23] These problems are compounded by difficulties in information-sharing between the police and placing authorities and the absence of a centralised mechanism to record episodes of going missing in relation to children who are placed out of area.[24]

33. In 2018, St Helens Council stopped commissioning Catch22 to complete RHIs for children placed in St Helens by another local authority, unless that local authority paid for that service. Catch22 considered that this led to a “huge intelligence gap” as agencies in St Helens are not aware of the risks posed to children in their area. This gap was also acknowledged as an area for development by the St Helens Safeguarding Partnership and Merseyside Police, albeit considering it “a national problem”.[25]

34. The Inquiry was told that Missing Practitioners from Warwickshire County Council carried out RHIs when children were placed in the county by other authorities and the information was shared with the placing authority. The Council also stated that any sexual exploitation concerns would be followed up in the same way as for a Warwickshire child, with communication with the placing authority and local multi-agency meetings.[26] While the exploitation team should be informed of any out-of-area placements notified to the multi-agency safeguarding hub, not all placing authorities complied with the obligation to notify Warwickshire when placements were made.

35. In autumn 2018, Durham Constabulary initiated the Philomena Protocol, designed to coordinate and focus responses to young people in children’s homes going missing. It encourages carers, staff, families and friends to compile information that could be used in the event of a young person going missing from care.[27] Durham Constabulary told us that fewer children were going missing from children’s homes, which it partly attributed to the use of the protocol.[28] The Philomena Protocol was recently commended by the National Police Chiefs’ Council as an example of good practice and is being adopted by other forces.[29]

References

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