Birmingham City Council has been failing sexual exploitation victims by not properly recording and investigating missing children cases for six years.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to keep a record of every runaway incident to build up intelligence and offer return interviews, to check for potential abuse and to help identify grooming suspects.
But the council has admitted it has failed to keep full and proper records of youngsters categorised as ‘missing’ from 2009 and those recorded as ‘absent’ from 2013.
That means social workers were less able to identify all incidents, particularly repeat runaways – those more vulnerable to child sexual exploitation (CSE) – and highlight problem areas and possible predators.
Child care boss Peter Hay, Strategic Director, Adults & Communities, said: “We know our past data is poor and inaccurate. We know and fully accept our work was not meeting the needs of children.”
Incredibly, West Midlands Police has also in the past been failing to properly inform councils of all its records because absent and missing data is collected separately on TWO computer systems, with only missing cases automatically passed on to social services. The absent cases have to be identified manually by officers each day.
Police have a statutory duty to investigate every missing case, costing an average of £2,500 per time, but they do not have to attend and investigate cases marked absent, a category introduced in 2013. That year the West Midlands force saw the more costly missing cases halve in number – while absent cases DOUBLED.
Police record children who disappear from home or care as either ‘missing’ when their whereabouts are unknown, or ‘absent’ when they “are not where they are supposed to be and there is no apparent risk”. Statutory guidance says absent cases should be monitored ‘with consideration given to escalating to ‘missing’ they are thought to be in danger. And every single absent incident should be passed on to council social workers.
Research has shown that sexual exploitation victims often go missing for short periods of time.
Birmingham City Council has admitted it has failed to keep proper data from 2009 to the end of 2014.
It says records it does have show just eight looked after kids as ‘missing’ in 2012-13, while in 2014/5 that figure had rocketed to 287. The council also admitted it had failed to keep records of children who go missing from their own homes, as required by government.
The authority also failed to fulfil national statutory requirements to analyse the data ‘in order to map problems and patterns’.
By comparison West Midlands Police recorded 7,817 missing adults and children incidents in 2012/13 on their bespoke missing persons system Compact, with an estimated 5,000 incidents being aged under 18s, based on National Crime Agency statistics. In an FOI release the force later put the missing figure for children as 127 in 2012 and 128 the year later.
The Department for Education’s statutory guidance - in place for the past SIX years - has required councils to record data about children missing from care placements AND their own homes and to provide that data in regular reports to council members, especially the lead member for children’s services and Birmingham Local Safeguarding Children Board.
The council has confirmed to the Birmingham Mail that it has not kept records or sent reports as required, although figures have been recorded since the beginning of this year.
Its children’s services department was judged as inadequate in every single area in a scathing Ofsted report last May that cited “widespread and serious failures”. The under-fire council department has had an “inadequate” rating by the watchdog since 2008.
Mr Hay has come under fire over the council’s handling of CSE since his appointment in 2013.
In November, we revealed a 20-year-old report first raised the links with CSE and Asian taxi drivers had been buried by not being published. Mr Hay went public to deny our claims but was eventually forced to backtrack. The council has since apologised publicly for its failure to tackle serious public interest issues uncovered in the report by respected researcher Dr Jill Jesson.
The city council was among the region’s local authorities criticised in a West Midlands Police CSE problem profile, obtained by the Mail after a Freedom of Information request. The report recommended the authority should improve its CSE data collation, and was told to introduce more staff training to improve awareness.
The failings of the council could leave the authority open to future legal action from CSE victims, legal experts have told the Mail.
Peter Hay, Strategic Director for People at Birmingham City Council.
In a statement about the record collection shambles Mr Hay said: “With all the inspection and improvement activity we are very aware of the problems that have faced Birmingham with the safety of children and the risks that may face those that have gone missing.
“All of our effort is focused on improvement and we aren’t diverting scarce resources to further rake over the past when we still have so much to do to improve.”
Birmingham Safeguarding Children’s Board coordinates how agencies work together to protect children, including those at risk of CSE. It said: “There is no statutory requirement as to exactly whose data we collect on missing children, or how. We are however required to satisfy ourselves that the local authority has, in place, arrangements to identify and track children who are missing from home or care, and education, and that each of those children gets a return home visit within 72 hours.
“At present we receive police data and are in discussions with the local authority about developing a more effective and comprehensive system for identifying and tracking all children missing from home, care and education.”
MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub) was launched last summer to help coordinate CSE and other child protection referrals across the West Midlands. Since the start of this year Birmingham City Council has been better able to record incidents and analyse the data around runaways.
Lloyd House, the West Midlands Police HQ
HOW POLICE HAVE BEEN FAILING:
WEST Midlands Police have been failing to properly record and pass on details of all runaways because of computer data linking problems - and may have been wrongly classing runaways as ‘absent’ rather than ‘missing’.
All crime calls are initially recorded on the main force computer system, called Command and Control. If a child is deemed ‘missing’ the incident and their details are recorded on to a second police system, called Compact, which automatically alerts social services.
But thousands of youngsters who go missing are being recorded as ‘absent’ on Command and Control - and social services are not automatically alerted.
Sources claim one runaway marked as ‘absent’ vanished for FIVE days, although police say the average time period is 1.7 days.
The ‘absent’ category was created in 2013 to free up police resources from looking for children who frequently abscond for hours and sometimes days at a time but who were not thought to be coming to harm.
But if the youngster is recorded as ‘absent’ on Command and Control and later turns up, a record of their absence is not created on the Compact system, meaning social workers have NOT been automatically alerted.
Police should have been alerting councils to ALL absence records since 2013, but the Mail understands the West Midlands force has only been doing that since towards the end of last year.
We have also discovered how ‘missing’ cases recorded by the force dropped at one point in 2013 to below half of the figures from 2010 – while ‘absence’ cases doubled at one point in 2013.
The force says it has in recent months been manually trawling through Command and Control records and alerting councils to absent cases.
Chief Inspector Sean Phillips, the force lead for missing people, told the Mail that, “every missing child will have been shared with the local authority.” But he admitted: “There is no doubt our preference would be to record all of these absent children on to a Compact system that would allow us to automatically refer absent cases in the same vein as we do missing children.
“We don’t have that facility currently with the Compact version we have. We are looking to upgrade to allow us to do that.
“So what we do we do in the interim is, we have a number of officers who will review the Command and Control log on a daily basis. They will look at any of those children or adults who are deemed absent. And they will review and risk assess and refer to the local authority as and when they need to.
“Because we don’t record absent data on Compact, because we record on a very manual based system that requires every log reviewed manually, what we aren’t able to do is collate all of that information at the moment into one place.”
When asked have all absent cases been passed on to councils, Chief Insp Phillips said: “I can’t tell you how many absent cases have been referred to the local authority because we are not collating that data in its totality.”
But he insisted: “We are referring absent children to the local authority, we are doing it on a daily basis by ten different policing units to seven different local authorities.”
Chief Insp Phillips also admitted. “There are small amounts (on Command and Control) that we’ve identified that were mistakenly closed. And we’ve reopened them so that they can be put on Compact so that a notification can be sent,” he said.