Children in care at risk MPs warn

Holly, 16, says care workers "don't come looking for you" when you go missing

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The care system is failing to track missing children, leaving them vulnerable to sexual crimes, MPs warn.

There were 42,000 incidents in England last year, according to estimates based on police figures.

Official figures record the number of children absent for 24 hours, as just 930.

Ofsted which oversees care home inspections is criticised for a tick-box approach but rejects this, saying it has overhauled its work.

Nine men from the Rochdale area were jailed in May for grooming and abusing teenage girls, including one who had been living in a privately-owned care home.

Ann Coffey, the head of the group of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Missing Children which reports on Monday, said the case should not be seen as an isolated incident.

"I think it is happening in every authority up and down the country and if authorities don't think it is happening in their area, it's not because it's not happening, it's because they don't know about it," she said.

The report is particularly critical of the work of the inspection agency, Ofsted, which refuses to tell police the locations of children's homes - information which police say could help safeguard children.

Police "filling vacuum" in care system over missing children, says Det Insp Philip Shakesheff

"Under the current system you can have a situation where a sexual predator is sitting in a car outside a children's home targeting the children inside that home, a home that the police don't even know exists," Ms Coffey said.

Ofsted says it is prohibited by law from giving police the names or addresses of care homes - but wants to see a change to make that possible.

Det Insp Philip Shakesheff of West Mercia Police, deputy head of a national police group on missing people, who gave evidence to the MPs, accuses Ofsted of having a "tick-box, sterile culture", for failing to give sufficient weight to incidents of children going missing when it inspects homes.

"At no stage have Ofsted approached us to ask us about our concerns about any home in West Mercia. At no stage have they asked us to share with them data about any homes or the numbers of missing persons episodes that they're reporting," he said.

A spokesperson for Ofsted told Newsnight it had overhauled its approach to inspections over the past two years.

"Inspection is the absolute opposite of a 'tick-box' exercise: It focuses on what life is like for a child in a home, on the quality of care, relationships and where necessary, control on the safety of young people in the home," she said.

The MPs also criticise the common practice of sending children away from their homes areas to other parts of the country, where police and local authorities often know little about their background or needs.

Police officer speaking with a youth The police are not currently told the location of children's care homes

They say about one third of the 65,000 children in care in England are looked after outside the boundaries of their own local authority.

Kent Police recently identified a high concentration of privately-owned children's homes in small area of Margate which also has a high concentration of former criminals including registered paedophiles, as well as high levels of drug-dealing and prostitution.

Many of the children are sent to the area by London boroughs who lack local places for looked-after children.

Laura Sandys, MP for Thanet South, told Newsnight it was "staggering" that authorities were placing children in areas where they have not done a proper assessment of child safety.

"They have been taken out of traumatic environments, difficult families and then they are placed miles and miles away from any point of reference, in an area that doesn't necessarily have the profile that you would expect a local authority to find for a child who is already traumatised," she said.

The government has stressed that children should be looked after in their own home areas whenever possible, and expressed concern to some local authorities that this is not always happening.

Watch Tim Whewell's full report on missing children in the care system on Wednesday 13 June at 22:30 BST on BBC Two, then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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