Vulnerable girls from a children’s home run by one of the UK’s biggest care companies claim two men raped them in a hotel room following a string of failings.
The alleged incident is one of nearly 37,070 cases of children going missing from homes last year.
The number is two-and-a-half times that of five years ago – and experts fear the surge is linked to criminal gangs exploiting kids in care.
We yesterday revealed allegations that county lines villains have infiltrated a children’s home in Lancashire.
Today, we investigate Britain’s £1billion-a-year private homes sector.
The number of children in care began to decline in the early 2000s but is up a third since 2008 to 78,000.
Children’s homes, secure units and providers of “semi-independent living accommodation” are entrusted with one in eight – but were responsible for half of those missing last year.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, warned these kids “are often easy pickings for gangs and criminals”, adding: “The Government must get on with its promise of an independent and robust review.”
Private firms run 75% of homes and it can cost a council between £3,000 and £12,000 a week per child. But a report for Ms Longfield found firms make profits of more than £200million a year from a“fragmented, irrational system”. The alleged rape was detailed in an Ofsted report on a home run by Keys Group, a chain of 98 sites owned by private equity investors.
The girls at the home in Lancashire, since closed, had “a range of emotional needs”, including risk of sexual exploitation. Inspectors said staff got limited training and 20 left in seven months, warning bosses they were unprepared.
A rule to not let the girls out all together was dropped when they were taken shopping. They fled and staff failed to call police for 140 minutes.
Some returned “highly intoxicated”, claiming they were “raped by two males in a hotel”.
Ofsted stated: “Poor management oversight and a failure to keep young people safe left a life-changing impact on the girls’ lives.”
Police probed but, after reviewing the evidence, took “no further action”.
Keys got revenue of £59.5m from residential placements and paid £1.3m to private equity owner G Square.
The firm said: “On the infrequent occasions when care doesn’t meet the high standards [expected], we are committed to learning. None of our homes are currently rated inadequate.”
At another Norfolk site, one kid was missing 76 times in seven months. Ofsted found children sometimes fail to return for days and provider Cambian “failed to ensure there are sufficient adequately experienced and qualified staff” – yet there was “a constant push for new referrals”.
Half of kids were not getting education and spent time with anti-social groups, being “drawn into criminal behaviour, substance misuse and violence”. And only three staff were trained, the rest on probation – yet the manager was sent 10 referrals for new admissions a day.
Another Cambian home in Northampton “rapidly declined” after the manager quit and a “high number” of staff left. Caretech took over Cambian last year to become the UK’s largest operator, with 191 homes and earning £230m a year in revenue from kids’ services.
The firm said improvements were made to Cambian’s homes and none were now rated “inadequate” after being re-inspected and upgraded by Ofsted. It added: “The safety and wellbeing of every individual cared for in our services is our upmost priority.”
Caretech is run by brothers Farouk and Haroon Sheikh, paid a combined £1.7m last year in salary, pension and bonuses. They also got £1.5m in dividends due to their 11% stake.
Priory is the third-largest operator with 62 sites – but two were closed last year. At one home in Birmingham, Ofsted found “a high number going missing” and staff “unable to manage behaviour”. Kids vanished 63 times in a year at another home in the city.
Both sites were suspended by Ofsted, which said it does so only with “reasonable cause to believe a child may be exposed to risk of harm.”
Priory earned £140.7m in revenue from this “education segment” of the business last year, while the best-paid director got £548,000. The biggest subsidiary, Priory Education Services Limited, with 41 homes, made an operating profit of £7.4m last year.
The company said its contract to run the services in Birmingham ends in January and it took the “difficult decision” to close them as “they no longer suited the needs of those placed there” and the pandemic made it harder to find suitable staff.
A spokesman said: “The majority of our frontline teams do an incredible job in improving the life chances of those entrusted into our care.”
But child care campaigner Martin Barrow said: “Children’s homes have become a £1billion-a-year business and investors are making huge profits.
“Most authorities have closed their homes and depend on the for-profit private sector. They did this to save money but it costs them so much more in the long run, of course – and vulnerable children pay the price.”