Vulnerable Suffolk children risk being 'sucked into a world of drugs' crime and sexual exploitation
PUBLISHED: 07:00 08 January 2020 | UPDATED: 07:55 08 January 2020
Vulnerable young people are being placed in accommodation where drugs are rife and specialist support is lacking, a care worker has claimed.
The anonymous worker for an 'independent living' provider in Suffolk, has issued a serious warning about the conditions facing growing numbers of young people in the county.
Independent living is accommodation for looked after young people aged 16 and over, run by private companies contracted by Suffolk County Council, (SCC) with varied levels of supervision.
SCC has almost doubled the number of independent placements, up from 68 in 2014/15 to 122 last year, following a big increase in older children in care. But while SCC acknowledged growing pressures, it claimed placements were only offered to mature youngsters deemed suitable following assessment.
SCC said that while providers where not regulated by Ofsted those in Suffolk were all "quality assured" and subject to regular checks and visits. It said two providers were award-winning and any failing to meet standards would be decommissioned.
But while the staff member agreed their colleagues were "really dedicated", they added many became disillusioned by the pressures and budget cuts.
They said the growing numbers of older children in care, the breakdown in foster placements and a lack of alternatives meant many of those in independent living had special needs, which were not being met. Instead, they found themselves "sucked into a world of drugs".
"Some residents were very young for their age, some were autistic or had mental health problems and had never taken drugs in their life," they said. "Within weeks, in order to fit in, they were trying everything they were offered - with dire consequences on their behaviour and health."
The staff member said the future of these young people was easy to predict. "A journey into the criminal justice system - a life of poverty, abuse and sexual exploitation and in some awful cases, early death," they added.
Sumayyah Ibrahim, whose autistic son was placed in independent living in Ipswich, aged 16, claims it was over-run with drugs and crime. The son, who we have agreed not to name, is currently in a young offender's institute for threatening two care workers at the accommodation.
But Miss Ibrahim claims his criminal behaviour stemmed from drug problems developed while being shunted around the care system, in Suffolk and other areas.
As a struggling single mum bringing up young children, Miss Ibrahim said she was pressured by another council into agreeing for her son to be taken into care - and has been desperate for his return ever since.
Miss Ibrahim, a member of the national group No More Exclusions, complained to the council about what she claimed was an "appalling lack of essential services for vulnerable young people in state care" and called for their treatment in Ipswich to be scrutinised.
She said her son would often call "in a very distressed state", claiming his friends had stolen from him leaving him without food. She said known drug-dealers often visited the flats.
SCC said staff were on site 24/7 to ensure young people were safe and the premises were not used for drug related activity.
In December 2018, a council officer wrote to Miss Ibrahim to highlight "increasing concerns" about her son's drug use. The officer said staff at his accommodation would be vigilant in checking his room for drugs and police would look at "intel" around who he was associating with. She replied urging that her son be returned to his family to avoid him being "criminalised" in the council's care, where she feared he would "end up dying".
Police confirmed the area had a "known affiliation" with drug dealing, leading to searches and arrests in the past.
Last year, BBC Newsnight heard claims thousands of young people were being "dumped" in unregulated homes and "abandoned to organised crime gangs". Suffolk was reported at the time to have particularly high numbers in unregulated accommodation.
Cliff James, head of children's services at SCC, said while accommodation providers may not be registered with Ofsted all premises were regularly visited by council staff. "We're passionate about providing the best quality care that we can for young people," he said.
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SCC said feedback from young people in independent living found 100% felt safe and treated with respect. Children's services was rated 'Outstanding' by Ofsted.
Breakdown in foster placements due to 'escalating behaviours'
The number of young people in foster homes in Suffolk has grown by almost a third - despite a rise in placements breaking down due to "escalating behaviour".
Suffolk County Council figures show 607 young people were in foster households - up from 457 in 2014/15 - making it the most widely used care setting for looked after children.
The increase has matched an overall rise in children in care over the five years, which also follows national trends.
But with the number of children being adopted falling by around half - it has placed pressures on other settings, such as foster households, children's homes, and independent living.
Figures show the number of 16 and 17-year-olds in care has almost doubled in the last five years.
Cliff James, head of children's services, said older children tended to present "more challenging behaviour" and were sometimes caught up in the rising problems around drugs and gangs in Ipswich.
Although SCC has sought to recruit more foster households - averaging between 40-60 new recruits each year - the overall numbers have remained stagnant.
Part of the problem relates to a significant rise in placements ending prematurely, usually due to the child's "escalating behaviours".
While just five placements broke down in 2015/16 that number has risen to 20 in 2017/18 and 17 in 2018/19.
SCC said most unplanned endings happened due to the child's behaviour making "fostering no longer the appropriate choice".
Mr James said not every foster carer could cope with the behaviour of some teenagers but the council offered lots of support.
He agreed more help around mental health would also be useful. He said the council was "really keen" to have more foster carers applying for places, particularly for the older children.
SCC said it sought more appropriate settings, such as residential children's homes, when foster placements ended.
The number of children in residential homes has remained steady over recent years at around 60-70. But, whereas the homes were previously only used for older children, mainly teenagers, children as young as eight or nine have started to be placed there in more recent years.