An adoption agency has taken the unusual step of explaining why it chose to publicly advertise two vulnerable siblings, after sharing photo and video footage of the brother and sister in an online newspaper. The private details were shared in an attempt to find foster parents for the children.

The invasive practice, which allows vulnerable children’s details to be shared worldwide, often draws criticism from the public. Reformers and child rights groups are also growing increasingly concerned about the exposure the practice offers grooming gangs and child traffickers.

Interestingly, the piece in the Evening Post does not explain why adoption agency Caritas Care felt the need to explain its actions. The decision may stem around the often aggressive public reaction to making information about vulnerable children widely available online and in print. And for good reason: the practice is widespread but poorly regulated, and is in direct breach of a child’s right to privacy.

The practice also throws up another important conflict of interest. Many parents whose children are taken into care share parental responsibility with the Local Authority who are looking after their children, which means that significant decisions about a child’s health and wellbeing need to be made with parental involvement, and often, their consent. That would include ensuring that parents who share decision making responsibilities have agreed to their children being publicly advertised in the first place. Caritas does not say whether the parents were involved in this appeal, or whether they had parental responsibility at the time. Trying to get a sense of how agencies and government are implementing this kind of publicity is also virtually impossible. Centrally held child welfare data in the UK is so piecemeal, that information on which councils and agencies are publicising children in the media and doing so either with the consent of parents who share parental responsibility, or as the sole body with that responsibility, isn’t automatically available.

Another deeply concerning aspect of publicising vulnerable children online, is that it may well be contributing to the child trafficking epidemic in Britain, which is responsible for thousands of children in care going missing every year, who are then sexually exploited and groomed by gangs. Given that 70% of child sex trafficking victims are sold online, we can see that traffickers are using the internet in a variety of ways to find, and sell, trafficking victims. It’s the first place they look.

And yet the government remains complacent about the effects of publicly advertising vulnerable children online.

Publicising deeply intimate information about a child, and sharing photos and videos of them online, can also be traumatic for a child. The trauma can take place during the event if they are old enough to access the internet, but it can also happen later on, should someone tell the child they’ve been seen online, and know, for example, what their personal preferences are, and, of course, that they are not only vulnerable, but being looked after by foster or adoptive parents.

Caritas tell the Yorkshire Evening Post that the online appeals it has run for the children in its Leeds branch have resulted in the service finding families for over 90% of the children it has featured over the last three years. What Caritas doesn’t tell the newspaper is how many of those children stayed in those placements permanently, how many ran away, and how many were identified by groomers and traffickers, and then found themselves victims of child sexual abuse and neglect.

Caritas also don’t mention that Leeds is one of the worst places in England for human trafficking and child sexual abuse. 

We also know that a large number of children go missing from foster care every year, though the government is still not sure why. Perhaps practices like these are part of the problem. It is now vital that we ask whether this Local Authority’s media drive is helping to feed the trafficking and grooming industries in the city. (For more news items on this, Google “child trafficking in Leeds”).

Still, it’s not just Leeds’ fostering agencies engaging in the practice. We know it’s a nationwide phenomenon. So, it’s time for the government to have a serious debate about the practice and policy around advertising vulnerable children online. This is what it must do:

  • Investigate the practice of publicly advertising vulnerable children for placements, both online and in print, by collecting as much data on this practice as possible
  • Examine the child rights issues involved
  • Look at the ways in which local authorities have been, and should be proceeding, where they share parental responsibility with the children’s parents
  • Explore the link between child trafficking and grooming, and publicly available information about children and their whereabouts
  • Hold a consultation on the practice, inviting submissions on all the points above

Very many thanks to Michele Simmons for alerting us to this story.