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"Serious weaknesses" in England's care system have been revealed by a report which found children's homes failed to protect runaways, the children's minister says.

An investigation by MPs found placing youngsters far from home could encourage them to abscond - leaving them then at risk of sexual abuse.

Their report calls for an independent investigation into the homes system.

Children's Minister Tim Loughton said "urgent steps" would be taken.

Much of the criticism by the all-party parliamentary groups on children in care and on runaways and missing people focuses on homes where about 5,000 of the 65,000 of those in care are looked after.

The report, which was first highlighted by BBC Two's Newsnight programme earlier this month, says the system of residential care is "not fit for purpose" for children who go missing.

It says many older children who have complex needs are placed in residential care that is poor quality and unsuitable, often a long way from home, family and friends.

Start Quote

Dangerous predators are exploiting large gaps in the system and targeting children”

End Quote Ann Coffey MP

The children can be extremely vulnerable and need support, but this is often not picked up if they are facing further abuse or exploitation.

Some professionals view them as troublesome, promiscuous or criminals, it added.

The findings come a month after the conviction of nine men in Rochdale for sexually exploiting young girls. One of the girls was in care at the time and all were said to have been known to social services at some point.

Labour MP Ann Coffey, chairwoman of the all-party parliamentary group for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, said: "There is a scandal going on in England involving children missing from care.

"This inquiry has revealed the widespread concern that what we have in place at the moment falls dramatically short of what is needed to protect some of society's most vulnerable children.

"We know that dangerous predators are exploiting large gaps in the system and targeting children."

She said 46% of children in care homes were from another home town and it needed to made clear whether this was for the welfare of the child or "simply to do with insufficiency of accommodation".

'Lack of training'

The report calls for a scorecard system to rate local authorities, an end to barriers which prevent police knowing the location of children's homes and a new system for reporting runaways from care.

It also highlights a lack of training for staff, too much reliance on agency workers and "poor quality" placements in children's homes.

Councillor David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people's board, said the report made uncomfortable reading, although he said there was a "statistical fog" as a result of the way data on missing children was collected by different agencies.

For example, the care register requires a child be reported as missing to police if they are not in the children's home at a required time "even if they know where that child is and if they are safe".

On the question of children being placed away from their home town, he said: "Sometimes for children, being close to home is actually part of the problem. They may be aware that children are being groomed for sexual abuse and will want to get them away."

Ofsted is also criticised in the report for a tick-box approach to its inspections of care homes, but has rejected this, saying it has overhauled its work in the last two years.

An Ofsted spokesman added: "There is no doubt that the system is currently failing some very vulnerable children.

"In its inspections of children's homes, Ofsted regards the issue of missing children as one of the main indicators of the quality of care. The inquiry rightly highlights the barriers which prevent us sharing information about the location of children's homes with local police forces.

"We agree that this is something that the government needs to consider changing."

The children's minister said the government had recently outlined plans to tackle child sexual exploitation.

The report went to the "heart of some serious weaknesses in the current system, which leave far too many of the most vulnerable children in society exposed to harm and danger", he added.

Mr Loughton said: "It is completely unacceptable that existing rules are simply being ignored and... some local authorities and children's homes are letting down children by failing to act as a proper 'parent'.

"We are looking in detail at all the issues raised and will set out urgent next steps in the coming weeks."

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