The complex issues and needs of young people in care mean that children’s homes in Leeds are a hotspot for reports of missing people.
The children involved are often also considered to be among those at greatest risk of child exploitation (CSE), making the need to effectively protect this vulnerable group even more crucial.
But balancing the rights of children in care with a duty to protect them from harm is no easy task.
One 16-year-old, who is considered at risk from older men, is challenging intervention by the authorities in Leeds.
Chief Supt Money, Leeds Divisional Commander, said: “She’s been in care most of her life. She’s taking legal advice in respect of her right to have a relationship with whoever she wishes.
“She’s still a child in the eyes of the law and certainly our focus is around safeguarding people like her and providing that general guardianship.”
It doesn’t solve the problem, it displaces it.Steve Walker, deputy director of children’s services
Some authorities move children at risk of CSE out of the area altogether, but Leeds City Council does not favour this approach.
Steve Walker, deputy director of children’s services, said: “It doesn’t solve the problem, it displaces it.
“We feel we know our children, what support they need. The important thing is we hold on to them here within Leeds. We support them here.”
It can take a lot of intensive work to build trust and encourage them to change their behaviour.
Mr Walker said: “We have to stick with them and, while we’re doing that, we have to work closely with police to make sure we’re not using too much of their resource.”
Where children are going missing repeatedly, it can prompt questions about whether other measures such as relocation or secure accommodation are required.
Nick Smart, the chairman of West Yorkshire Police Federation, said: “It’s great we’ve found them safe and well, but we’ve spent a lot of time and resource looking for somebody who someone outside the police force has decided to put back where they were. It’s a very frustrating situation.”
Assistant Chief Constable Mark Milsom, of West Yorkshire Police, said those children not working cooperatively with their carers could walk out as they wished because there was no real form of restraint.
Mr Walker said: “That’s why it’s important staff are skilled, are able to form relationships, get on their wavelength and talk to them. We make every efforts to stop them from walking out.
“In very extreme circumstances, if we have a young person who is putting themselves at considerable risk, we can apply for a secure order.”
The council also has authority to detain a child without an order for up to 48 hours in exceptional circumstances.
Mr Walker said: “We don’t like to use it because we’re putting very unhappy and challenging children who may be involved in criminal offending in one place.”
Secure accommodation for children from Leeds and surrounding authorities is provided at Adel Beck, which has been rated outstanding by Ofsted.
The council has also introduced a specific out-of-hours team for children’s safeguarding, has a therapeutic social work team, and runs a joint intelligence hub with police to share information.
Meanwhile, the Front Door Safeguarding Hub brings a wide range services together to review individual cases.
Mr Walker said: “It’s a difficult area of work and one that requires managing, but I think we’re managing it both at a strategic level and on the ground.”
Chief Supt Money said he would like to see more consistency around risk assessment procedures at council-run and private children’s homes in the city.
He said: “We’re on the right path in terms of working arrangements, but there’s more to be done.”