There is an increase in runaways, according to Ann Coffey, the Labour MP who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for missing children, particularly among those placed in homes further from families. And they are particularly vulnerable, she added, to criminals using them as mules to ferry drugs under so-called county lines operations.
“These children are very vulnerable to exploitation,” she said. “They tend to be more isolated, in a new area, new care setting, new school. The gangs, that want to exploit them, to use them as drug mules or for exploitation, understand that they are vulnerable.”
This is not an issue isolated to high-crime, city streets, she claimed, but one that is beginning to impact upon all communities, from the most rural to the most affluent. It is long past time, she warned, that action was taken.
“We have to listen to children,” she said. “We can look at all the data, but we have to look at what children do - and children are running away, they are going missing. There’s something happening that children do not like. And because we are not listening to them, we are adding to the harm that they have experienced in their home environments.”
In the past, she claimed, boys in particular who went missing from care were seen as low risk. That lesson, she added, has now been thoroughly learned.
“They were a high risk,” she said. “They were going missing because they were being exploited by gangs, to carry and supply drugs. We had no awareness that was happening, we didn’t see the harm that was done. This is a very serious form of exploitation. It is seriously affecting communities, even those that weren’t troubled by drugs before.”
The phrase ‘county lines’, referring to networks of drug dealing from urban centres into smaller towns and rural areas, is rising in significance. In 2014, the National Crime Agency found evidence that gangs were operating in seven police force areas. By the following year, that figure was over 70 per cent. In November, the NCA said it believed county lines were evident in some form within all areas of England.
“People have always seen children, young people and drugs as being a particular problem in city areas, with high crime rates,” Ms Coffey said.
“We are now discovering that this is a problem in nice, middle class areas, involving children in nice, middle class homes, who are being exploited by these gangs. This is coming home to people - this is not something that is going to affect ‘other people’s children’.”
The Government figures are experimental, and new, and Children and Families Minister Nadhim Zahawi has warned the statistics may be misleading in comparisons. Based on her own findings, Ms Coffey said, there is a rise, nationally. This is a particular issue in children’s homes, with distance from home a key factor.
“There is a faster increase in children going missing who have been placed in children’s homes at a distance from their home areas than those in local placements,” said Ms Coffey.
“It’s no surprise that children placed at a distance from their home areas are going missing at a faster rate. They don’t want to be somewhere far from what is familiar to them.
“It’s really important that there is an understanding that we take children into care when making judgements that their particular home circumstances are not safe for them, and we then place them somewhere which makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The answer is that local authorities should have much more of a say in where children are placed.”