It’s an horrific idea – London councils dumping looked-after children on Thanet because there are cheap houses here, these kids being preyed upon by gangs, enlisted in the drugs trade and falling into all kinds of criminality which they spread around the Isle.
Paul Luxmoore, chief executive of Thanet’s multi-academy trust, has said the situation is so bad that he will only accept children from a care background into the schools he oversees if a Government minister orders him to do so.
But what lies behind this picture, and is our only answer to pull up the drawbridge on fortress Thanet and keep the problem out?
Children enter care for many different reasons when their parents can no longer cope or the local authority fears for their safety. These same authorities do everything they can to keep the affected children in their area.
When the danger is close to home, such as gangs or sexual exploitation, authorities have a duty to move children to another area. Kent County Council is no exception and moves vulnerable young people to other parts of the country (I am awaiting precise figures). Similarly, Kent accepts at-risk children into care from outside the county.
The Government has a policy of reducing out-of-area care, and successive Conservative MPs in Thanet have spoken loudly about the need to prevent children being housed here from other areas.
The suggestion is often made that the setting up of children’s homes and the fostering of children are financially motivated. Another way of looking at this is that children’s homes and fostering provide a source of income for many hundreds of people in an area of limited opportunity.
I watched the England vs Croatia World Cup semi-final with two friends who are going through the fostering process with their partners. One is a long-term resident who has brought up two children, one with special educational needs. The other recently moved from London to enjoy a better quality of life on our beautiful part of the coast. Both want to provide a stable, secure and loving home for vulnerable young people, keeping siblings together if possible.
Another complaint is that looked-after children are a drain on our limited resources, but the same argument is never made of the children who attend boarding schools here. Looked-after children certainly need additional support, but surely the answer is to increase resources rather than discriminating against young people who have suffered the worst start in life.
Those seeking to limit the placement of looked-after children in Thanet sometimes argue that they are magnets for the kind of exploitation they are fleeing. As part of the County Lines operation, Kent Police is making efforts to speak to people working with youngsters about the dangers of gangs. This is aimed as much at young people from Thanet as it is at those at risk from outside the area.
The Independent Children’s Homes Association has said that the link between out-of-area placements and child sexual exploitation, offending or drugs cannot be substantiated with evidence. If we are to prevent vulnerable children from falling prey to unscrupulous gang leaders, better support is needed.
The Labour Party has promised a comprehensive review of the care system which recognises the value of education. The 2017 manifesto pledged that ‘We will promote the care and educational achievement of our most vulnerable children and increase support for children in kinship and foster care, and their families’. Local authorities operate ‘virtual schools’, made up of the children they place in education around the country. One way of providing additional support would be to increase staffing in these virtual schools. Another would be to improve support in the classroom and wider community.
Keeping young people safe and supported must be our top priority. The reality is that the under-funding of social services, education and policing is having a direct impact on children’s safety.
What is badly needed is more support from central government for looked-after children, their families and carers. Thanet should demand additional resources to become a centre of excellence for care services and a place of refuge for some of the most vulnerable children in society.