Dozens of children under county council care go missing during coronavirus lockdown

Cared for children (posed photo)

By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan

Dozens of children under the care of Kent County Council (KCC) went missing amid the coronavirus lockdown.

A total of 69 Kent youngsters have been involved in 179 missing ‘reports’ since April 24. Three have yet to return to their foster placements.

KCC’s cabinet member for children’s services, Cllr Sue Chandler (Con), said the number of cases represented a 33% decrease compared to the six-week period prior to the start of the UK-wide lockdown on March 23.

Speaking at KCC’s virtual full council meeting yesterday, the Dover councillor said: “We are committed to maintain different ways of working and staying in contact with children and young people in the future.”

Her comments came after concerns were raised by a KCC member over recent changes to UK government laws which allows local authorities to “relax” their duty of care towards vulnerable children during the pandemic.

Several safeguards for youngsters were “stripped” while 65 legal protections were removed or weakened, according to national children’s charities.

Canterbury county councillor Ida Linfield (Lib Dem), the vice-chairman of KCC’s corporate parenting panel, said she “condemned” the ad-hoc reforms.

She said: “These charities and other local authorities have said that this has resulted in an alarming series of cases where young children have been trafficked into human slavery and targeted by gangs of criminals.

“High and significant numbers of children have also been reported missing.”

In Kent, Cllr Chandler admitted that the lack of formal schooling had raised opportunities for sexual and criminal exploitation of youngsters, such as county ‘drug dealing’ lines and grooming.

There have been no reported increases of child trafficking since the Whitehall laws were relaxed on April 24, Cllr Chandler said. She added that Maidstone County Hall continues to work closely with Kent Police during the pandemic.

More than 300 children under KCC’s care went missing in 2019, including 72 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children aged under 18. Many sought contact with their friends, family and partners.

Amid the pandemic, a substantial drop in the number of missing episodes has occurred, decreasing from 238 to 179 over the last three months.

The main reasons behind the drop include home schooling and having more activities to do indoors. They have also been unable to meet up with friends in public spaces, such as parks, but still receive virtual social support.

Concluding, Cllr Chandler added: “As a result of the need to reduce face to face visits, social care staff have been creative in the ways they have found to engage with young people via social media.”