New research from Cardiff University shows that children in care are being moved around at unprecedented levels, and that acute placement breakdown is damaging already vulnerable children while also placing them at risk of abuse.

The report comes after findings by the Children’s Commissioner last year that three quarters of children in care are ping ponged around the care system.

The Cardiff University report, “Keeping Safe? An analysis of the outcomes of work with sexually exploited young people in Wales”, which was written by Dr Sophie Hallett, used case records of 205 children involved with social services in just one Welsh local authority and concluded that the more moves a child experiences, the greater their chances of becoming victims of sexual exploitation.

In one case, a child was moved 57 times.

Dr Hallett, said: “Although only focusing on one local authority, the systemic issues we have uncovered are representative of the sector throughout the UK. A less predictable home environment can have huge consequences for children. Without a stable home life, feelings of rejection and insecurity are exacerbated. For multiple complex reasons, it leads to them becoming more susceptible to this form of abuse.

“The analysis also highlights a number of other problems which, despite their best efforts, make it extremely difficult for those tasked with caring for these young people to be able to offer the right support.”

She added, “The report presents a troubling account of the entire care system. Young people were angry at the bodily or behavioural attention they received and the seemingly limited concern for them and their happiness.

“Foster carers said there was no support to address the abuse or rejection children had experienced and were concerned that the safeguarding measures they were having to put in place were sending messages to young people that they were the ones at fault.”

While there is no doubt that the social care sector has been hit hard by budget cuts and that those cuts have affected levels of service, the truth is less about money and much more about training, outlook and culture.

The system hosts far too many contradictions which do not place the best interests of children at the forefront of the care process.

For example, the idea that adoptions and long term foster placements are irrevocable in most cases sits completely at odds with the reality that a large number of children are removed from these homes, often more than a few times during their childhood.

That the sector ignores this contradiction cannot be in the best interests of children, who need stable, solid homes that last a lifetime.

On the other hand, keeping children with their biological/ original parents wherever possible, while offering tailored support at every stage of a child’s life offers the balance and dynamism the sector – and children – so desperately need.

Crucially, this method of care could also help to heal any feelings of rejection and anxiety stemming from early experiences while allowing parents the chance to give their children what they need. (Please see our piece over at Apolitical for more on a pioneering new social care model).

Social services can’t ever hope to provide proper care and support without being able to have every option available, but that also requires a much higher level of training and a much more sophisticated child welfare system.

Not surprisingly, the report noted that tools typically used for responses to CSE, like healthy relationships education, had no positive impact for most young people who received this support, and were in some case associated with negative outcomes.

Equally unsurprising was the finding that having a supportive adult in their lives was the most important factor in producing positive outcomes for children. Simple things like spending time with children, engaging with them and nurturing their confidence and self esteem were cited as the most powerful ways to help children. The research also confirmed that these behaviours reduced substance misuse later on in life.

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