Rise in children housed far from home increases risk of gang recruitment

Charles Hymas
Ann Coffey MP said 'children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them' - Getty Images Europe

Councils are unwitting "recruiting sergeants" for county lines gangs because they are sending vulnerable children miles away from their families, MPs have warned.

A parliamentary inquiry claims thousands of children are being put at risk by being moved to children’s homes up to 100 miles from where they live.

It says children then become magnets for paedophiles and county lines gangs as they are isolated from friends, family and social workers.

The report, by the all-party parliamentary group for runaway and missing children and the Children’s Society, found more than 70 per cent of police forces that responded to the inquiry said placing children away from their home council area increased their risk of exploitation. 

It also often resulted in them being coerced into running away from the home and going missing.

In one case cited by the inquiry, a child bailed for murder was put into the same home as a child victim of trafficking, who was then recruited to sell drugs across county lines.

Nearly two thirds (64 per cent) of all children housed in children’s homes now live out of area, up from 46 per cent in 2012 because of increasing shortages of accommodation in their home borough and over-provision in areas with cheaper housing. 

The number of children reported missing from out of area placements has also more than doubled since 2015, from 990 in 2015 to 1,990 in 2018. 

That compares with a 31 per cent rise for those missing from in-area placement. Around 100,000 children are said to be in homes.  

Ann Coffey, the group’s chair who quit Labour to join Change UK, said: "It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for county lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away. It must stop.

"Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them.

"By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children."

She added: “Councils may also be inadvertently opening up new ‘County Lines’ operations because relocating children, who have been groomed to sell heroin and crack cocaine, can create opportunities for criminals to expand their reach into rural parts of the country.”

Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society said: “Our enquiry heard some truly shocking examples of the trauma and risk experienced by children placed out of area. It should be a wake-up call for urgent action at both the national and local level.” 

A previous inquiry by the group led to reforms including better data collection on missing children and new duties on social services’ chiefs, but it warns the situation has not improved and in some areas worsened.

It warns that there has been an increase in numbers of older children, aged 16 or over, being sent to live in unregulated semi-independent accommodation.

Eighty per cent of the 41 police forces who gave evidence expressed concern about the increasing numbers in these unregulated establishments which they described as”‘off the radar” because, unlike children’s homes they are not regulated or inspected.

More than 5,000 children in care in England are living in this type of accommodation, up 70 per cent from 2,900 ten years ago.

Specific police concerns about unregulated 16 plus accommodation included children left isolated and targeted by those seeking to exploit them for sex or to run drugs.

Police also highlighted high numbers of children repeatedly running away from such homes which their forces were not aware of until there was a missing incident.

The report recommends they should be regulated and inspected. It also says the Department for Education should set up an emergency action plan to slash the numbers of out of area placements and develop a cross-department strategy with the Home Office to counter county line gang recruitment of such children.

The Local Government Association said that children’s homes “are currently unevenly located around the country, and increasing demand means that councils can sometimes be forced to place children and young people in out of area placements, or placements that are not best suited to their needs.”