Jeanette Oldham | Birmingham MAIL | Articles | 18 Jan 2013
(article last updated 11:53)
More than 50 Birmingham children who went missing were feared to have suffered harm or sexual abuse, the Mail can reveal today.
Birmingham City Council disclosed a total of 55 youngsters were believed to have been harmed, sparking a referral to social workers and, potentially, the police, since 2009.
Last November, the Mail revealed a total of 5,794 youngsters had gone missing from state-run and private care homes in Birmingham over that period.
The city council refused at the time to say how many of those children were suspected to have been harmed or subjected to sexual offences during their absence.
But it has now revealed the figure of 55 after being repeatedly pressed on the subject by this newspaper.
Our original investigation also uncovered that the authority’s children’s services department, already in special measures, was breaking government orders by not offering ‘return interviews’ to all runaways, a requirement since 2009.
The council is currently employing two charities to help meet its statutory obligations, costing the taxpayer almost £100,000 in 2012.
The 55 cases included 13 referrals to social workers following return interviews carried out by the Children’s Society on behalf of the authority in 2009 and another 15 in 2010.
But in 2011, when Lotto funding used to pay for the interviews dried up, only two referrals were made.
In 2012, when the council started to pay the charity to conduct interviews, 25 referrals were made because of abuse fears.
Despite the figures unearthed by the Mail, the council awarded itself a score of 12 out of a possible 15 marks in 2010, the last year authorities were allowed to self-assess their performance in safeguarding missing children.
That rating was questioned by Andy McCullough, head of strategy and policy at charity Railway Children, which fights to protect street kids.
He said: “These figures make uncomfortable reading as there is clear evidence between sexual exploitation and instances of young people going missing, particularly on multiple occasions.
“What you have unearthed is a discrepancy between what a local authority is doing to protect vulnerable missing children at risk of abuse and what it says it is doing. When compelled under the Freedom of Information Act, local authorities are admitting they have broken government orders by not carrying out return interviews, despite the fact they have been required to do so since 2009.”
In a statement, Birmingham City Council said: “The Birmingham Safeguarding Children Board ensures that all agencies work together to share information regarding missing children and to assess risk level.
“We also work closely with voluntary organisations such as the Children’s Society who visit families to discuss problems and look at what help they may need and, if necessary, make a referral to a statutory agency.”
The Mail’s investigation also revealed other councils across the Midlands were failing to interview returning runaways.
Wolverhampton City Council recorded 1,112 missing children reports between 2009 and 2012 but carried out only 67 return interviews – meaning potential abuse cases may have been missed.
The authority received £15,000 in charitable funding to fund the interviews from April 2009 to March 2010, but failed to conduct any during the whole of 2009.
In 2010 it completed 52, despite recording 302 missing kids that year.
And only 30 of the 52 interviews were carried out within 72 hours of the youngsters’ return, in line with statutory requirements.
After the external funding dried up, the authority had to pay for the crucial interviews itself. But it carried out just five in 2011 and 12 last year. The council was unable to provide information for the number of children believed to have been harmed or subjected to sexual offences in the past four years.
But one child was recorded missing from local authority care 64 times between 2009 and 2011.
Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council recorded 1,791 missing children reports since 2009 but did not carry out any return interviews between 2009 and 2010, nor any in the financial year 2011-12.
A total of 35 were conducted in 2010-11 and 74 between April and October last year, including with two children who had been harmed while they were missing.
Of the four children’s homes in Dudley, one recorded that children had gone missing on 1,157 separate occasions between 2009 and 2012.
Sandwell Borough Council said it did not hold information for the total number of missing children reports between 2009 and 2011.
Since the it has now recorded 343 runaways from care and home since January 2012. Sandwell Council said it had never carried out return interviews and claimed the police performed that duty.
But police conduct ‘safe and well’ checks while local authorities are required to complete return interviews.
In Walsall, just two children were recorded as going missing from foster care for a period of less than 24 hours in 2009, but that rocketed to 56 in 2011.
Nine kids went missing from residential care homes for less than 24 hours in 2009, rising to 33 the following year, before falling to 29 in 2011.
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