Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Thursday, 27 March 2008

More children in care go missing

pupils using computers
Schools are getting a new duty to take more care of looked after children

The number of children who run away while in care in England has been rising, figures show.

In 2005, 860 looked after children went missing, 890 in 2006 and 950 last year. The rise came as the number of children in care fell to 83,400 last year.

The statistics follow new guidance from the Department for Children, Schools and Families aimed at improving the lot of children in local authority care.

It says efforts need to be focused on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.

The figures show that the number who went missing from care homes only, rather than foster care or placements with relatives, has remained at about 290 a year.

Each child is counted only once even if they ran away several times.

The increase in the number of runaways occurred even though the total number of children in care declined, from 85,300 in 2005 to 83,400 last year.

They apply to those missing for at least 24 hours. More than that they are not broken down.

But in a Commons written answer last year the number missing for more than 30 days in 2006 was put at 370, more than a third of the total.

Charities working with young people say the sort of things runaways may turn to in order to survive, such as begging, theft and offering sexual services, put them at considerable risk.

Experts say however that residential care home staff tend to file a missing report sooner than a parent would, to avoid any legal liability. So the number reported as missing may be inflated.

Close to home

The new practical guide on improving the lot of such children is called Care Matters: Time to Deliver.

Its focus is on providing stability - listening more carefully to the children themselves and ensuring each has "a strong, stable relationship with their carers".

A key aspect of this is to place children close to home so they can stay in touch with friends and family, where suitable.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls said: "If we are to achieve our vision of helping every child to get a world class education and succeed in life, we need to focus our efforts where they are needed most - on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged young people in our society."

He said he was determined to change the "injustice" of their current experience - five times less likely to achieve five good GCSEs and eight times more likely to be excluded from school.


Children's Minister Beverley Hughes said: "For too long children have languished in a care system that allowed them to fail - if we are to make this country the best place in the world for our children and young people to grow up, that must include vulnerable children in care too."

John Coughlan of the Association of Directors of Children's Services said: "We know that we have a care system which succeeds in protecting and nurturing the majority of children who come into contact with it."

Legislation going through Parliament makes it a legal requirement for schools to have a designated teacher responsible for helping children in care achieve their full potential.

Councils will have to ensure social workers visit all looked after children.

The government's news release on these developments was headed, "Children in care to get school pics and passports".

In fact they will not, necessarily: the department said this was not a requirement or even in the guidance.

It was "an illustration of how local authorities and other partners working with children in care should be thinking as parents do and act accordingly".

The Communities and Local Government Secretary Hazel Blears said: "Children tell us that it is often the little things that matter most - like whether they have a passport and can go on a school trip or whether they were able to see their sister last week."

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