Wales

'Sarah's Report' 20 years on - I thought my child would be safe:

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Media captionI thought my child would be safe: Sarah's Report 20 years on

A mother has called for an investigation after claiming her daughter ended up at greater risk after she was taken into care.

She said her daughter had 17 placements in the four years and missed nearly two years of school.

It comes some 20 years after a similar case of a 12-year-old - who the media called Sarah.

The case led to the publication of Sarah's Report which exposed failings in the care system and was supposed to ensure fail-safe improvements.

BBC Wales' Week In Week Out programme went in search of Sarah to find out what happened to her.

Sarah was a schoolgirl when she went into care for her own protection in the early 1990s. She ended up running away from foster placements and care homes, being lured into Cardiff's red light districts where she sold sex to fund her drug habit. She was 12 years old.

She was labelled a "child prostitute" in an era before the phrase "sexual exploitation" was used to describe the horror of her experiences.

Her story was told by newspapers after her mother turned to journalists to expose the scandal of a failing care system in the former South Glamorgan County Council area.

She had asked a simple question - how could her daughter go into care for her protection and end up being at even more risk?

What followed were calls for change, investigations and the publication of the Sarah Report. Lessons had to be learned about how councils treated vulnerable children in the care system, it said.

Over the ensuing 23 years I had often wondered about what happened to Sarah.

Whenever the issue of child sexual exploitation came up I wondered where she ended up. Did Sarah survive the system? She would be 35 now. How would she reflect on that time; a time when the adults who were meant to be protecting her had failed?

Back then, BBC Wales' Week In Week Out made several programmes on the issue but we never met Sarah because she had been moved again - to yet another unsuitable foster placement then another children's home and then, eventually, to a secure unit.

While making this week's Week In Week Out programme about a mother who feared for her daughter's safety in care, we decided to look for Sarah.

We wanted to know what would have made a difference to her back then and what would have stopped her running away, using drugs and taking such serious risks.

Sarah was not her real name - it was one she had chosen for anonymity in the 1990s. After all she was talking about things no girl of 12 should have to talk about, let alone be living.

After weeks of searching I got a breakthrough and finally found Sarah. I made contact, hoping she would not be scared or angry about a journalist contacting her after all these years.

What I found was an anxious woman who asked a lot of questions. Why were we making the programme? What did we know about care?

When I explained another mother had asked us the same question her mother asked journalists all those years ago, she agreed to meet.

"If you think it might help the girl who's in care now then I will talk to you," she said.

"I tried to help then, but if kids are still going through the same stuff in 2017 then something has gone wrong hasn't it?"

We arranged to meet. She gave me an address but explained she did not exactly have a home.

I was not sure what Sarah would be like now. I hoped that after being the subject of a high profile report which highlighted shortcomings, she would have spent the years that followed getting all the right help. She may have a house full of kids, a career.

I kept thinking "please let her be happy and sorted".

When she opened the front door I was shocked.

Sarah's face told her story. She looks older than her years. She looks ill.

"That's what being a crack addict does for you," she told me. "I was bigger than this when I came out of prison a few years ago."

She is now frail and has been warned that unless she stops using drugs she will die. But Sarah says the drugs are what help her to live with her past.

She agreed to be interviewed for the programme; for her it felt like the right thing. She wants so much to help children who are still in the system and who perhaps, like her, are angry, confused, feeling insecure about being in care.

All the things she felt back then.

She was angry to hear that one in 10 children in care in Wales last year experienced three or more placement moves.

"Now it makes me angry, makes me sick to my stomach to think there's kids out there now going through the same things I was going through," she said.

Just like Sarah, this young girl needed help to deal with her escalating behaviour.

She went into care because her mum could not cope with her refusing to go to school, getting into trouble with the police and sniffing lighter fuel.

But as soon as she was placed with foster carers she ran away, always back to her mum's house and the streets where she grew up, until another girl from care led her to the Riverside area of Cardiff where, back then, there was an established red light district.

Sarah showed us where she was taught to sell sex at the age of 12. She was matter of fact - there were no tears.

She said: "I was like 12, she was 15, 16 and this guy pulled over and he was like 'oh I will give you £40' and my friend passed me a condom and he gave me the money I thought do you know what, that's the easiest money I have ever made in my life and that's how I was into it.

"That money would buy me what I wanted, fags, drugs, whatever I wanted."

To the men who abused Sarah, her age and the fact that she was a sad, angry, confused child did not matter.

"A few guys did know my real age and they still had sex with me," she said.

"I used to get into the car and shake and think 'oh my God, he's going to take me away he's going to kill me he's going to dump me somewhere'.

"And I used to take drugs and alcohol to build confidence to get in that car and stuff - without that I wouldn't be able to do it.

"I didn't know about the dangers, or the sexually transmitted diseases or that I could be raped."

Sarah said one day she was picked up off the streets and attacked.

In a calm and matter of fact way, as we drove around the area where she used to wait for her abusers, she told us: "I was gang raped when I was 13 - the guy gave me a load of tablets - yeah, that was really bad that was."

I asked if she reported it to the police. She had not. She went back to the foster carer's home and said nothing.

Sarah did not think anyone would listen back then.

"You just put it to the back of your mind and move on," she said. "I was very angry person, for a long time. I can't get in relationships and stuff like that because I can't trust no-one and when a man touches me it makes me cringe."

We asked Sarah what would have made a difference to her back then. What would have stopped her running away, being drawn into that world of sexual exploitation and violence?

"Maybe if they had a foster family who did care about me and really did help me," she said.

'Turns my stomach'

Cardiff council - not involved with the recent case examined by BBC Wales - told us it was committed to doing everything possible to prevent child sexual exploitation.

It said it would be inappropriate for it to comment on the working practices of its predecessor - South Glamorgan council.

But, a spokesman added, important lessons had been learned following the Sarah Report which helped bring about marked improvements in the way local authorities look after vulnerable children.

Having met Sarah, it seemed some things had not changed for her, but if she could talk to the girl whose mum is worrying about her right now because she is in the system?

"Go to school, not to smoke cannabis, don't have sex with loads of men, just be that like that age you are supposed to be. Get her GCSEs, get a job make something of your life.

"It turns my stomach to think she could end up like me. It does make me feel physically sick, like. They need to do what they can to help her so she don't turn out like me."

Sarah is trying to build a new life and wants a future, but she is not sure if that will ever be possible.

More than two decades after her mother questioned the system and why it was not working for all children in care, Sarah is sad we are still asking.

  • Week In Week Out: I Thought My Child Would Be Safe - BBC One Wales, 22:40 BST, 4 April or on the iPlayer

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