|Following - in part - a damning investigation by The Western Mail, the National Assembly |
unanimously approved a motion calling for more action to tackle runaways and missing children in care.
(Pic : Huffington Post)
The latest statistics from March 2013 show that there were 5,745 looked-after children in Wales. The majority (3,125) are boys and the vast majority of both sexes are aged under 10.
Rhondda Cynon Taf (620) has the largest number of looked-after children, followed by Swansea (590), Cardiff (555), Neath Port Talbot (490) and Bridgend (385). There are noticeably fewer children in care in north Wales and rural Wales.
The Western Mail comes in for some well-deserved stick here and elsewhere, but when they get things right it's proper to give them the credit they deserve too.
I'm not sure if the report prompted the Assembly debate, but a few weeks ago, Ciaran Jones highlighted the shocking number of children who've gone missing from care in Wales. Following Freedom of Information requests to local councils, they revealed 221 looked after children had been reported missing from social service care over the last two years.
The "good" news is that most were eventually found, though four children remaining missing at the time the local authorities released the data. Some were missing for a long time – one teenager for 19 months - and the cases included babies, including one in Bridgend.
During the debate, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) said that across three Welsh police force areas there were more than 1,700 reports of children going missing from care. If South Wales Police had responded, I suspect the figure would've comfortably broken the 2,000 mark.
The reasons looked-after children "run away" or go missing are complicated. It's easy to place the blame on social services, but you can understand what sort of pressure and bureaucracy there is when they could be dealing with hundreds of children in foster or local authority care. It's probably a tough enough job for all parents.
It's doubly worse if those running away or going missing believe they don't have anyone to turn to. Rhodri Glyn Thomas AM (Plaid, Carms. E & Dinefwr) highlighted a "culture of not listening/believing children". Needless to say, many of these children will also have awful back stories and might not be inclined to trust adults – any adults.
Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) raised the issue of sex and relationship education in general, to ensure that young people are safe, not only from things like bullying and sexual abuse but online "grooming".
I'm not sure if there was a similar inquiry in Wales, but a 2012 Westminster inquiry in England (pdf) found that reasons for running away included :
- General unhappiness.
- Missing family and friends (where applicable).
- Bullying or abuse.
- "For fun"/attention seeking.
Going missing in itself is pretty serious, but there's an even darker side to this. Missing children, especially foreign children, are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking – effectively modern slavery - whether that's from criminal gangs, pimps or even things like paedophile rings.
Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) chairs the Assembly's cross-party group on Human Trafficking and has raised her own concerns on this several times. During the debate she said that the "wellbeing of looked-after children should be uppermost in the minds of every councillor at county hall." The legalese term for that being "corporate parenting".
Aled Roberts AM (Lib Dem, North Wales), a former council leader with experience at corporate parenting, said he had no recollection of any figures being given to him on the number of children missing from care in Wrexham. He questioned whether councillors with responsibility for corporate parenting will be able to fulfil their roles without that information.
The Welsh Government's own protocols on missing children say any child missing from care for more than 6 hours or after midnight needs to be reported to the police.
Earlier this year, Gwent Police joined forces with the local authorities in the area, in order to co-ordinate their own responses with social services and health professionals when dealing with children who go missing – not only from care, but generally. Gwent Police say they deal with up to 300 cases a month.
The Assembly noted the Gwent Missing Children Project approach, but wanted "more consistent and reliable data" regarding children, specifically those who go missing from care or foster homes.
The debate also addressed the issue of "out of area placements", with the Assembly agreeing that the practice could put children at risk. Around a quarter of children in care are placed "out of county" in Wales and this could contribute to unhappiness.
The Welsh Government's flagship Social Services & Wellbeing Bill – if passed - will require out of area placements to be subject to certain requirements, set out by regulations. Most of the current local authority responsibilities towards looked-after children have been retained, including providing accommodation to any child who requires it.
Another issue related to this is that of older children leaving care. In 2011, Children's Commissioner Keith Towler published a report – Lost After Care (pdf) – which says that many looked-after children are required to leave care "before they're ready", while social workers often don't have the opportunities to spend "quality time" with looked-after children.
There have been proposals to increase the age that looked-after children stay with foster parents (or care homes, I presume) from 18 to 21.
Ken Skates AM (Lab, Clwyd South) proposed a Member's Bill in 2012 - the first one post-referendum in fact - that would have provided phased support packages for children leaving care from ages 18-25. For whatever reason, the Bill itself wasn't introduced, but the debate at the time showed that there was clear cross-party support for continuing care (or contact) into young adulthood.
AMs approved the motion unanimously. Let's see what they can do though.