The Government should establish a new Sure Start Plus programme that could be targeted at teenagers who are at risk of becoming involved in criminal exploitation, the former children's commissioner says.
A new report from Anne Longfield's Commission on Young Lives has called for the introduction of Sure Start for Teenagers, which would bring local services together and provide bespoke services for families and children who need it.
Government statistics published last week reveal that in 2021/22 there were over 16,000 instances in England where child sexual exploitation was identified by local authorities as a factor at the end of an assessment by social workers. There were 11,600 instances where gangs were a factor and 10,140 instances where Child Criminal Exploitation was a factor.
Ms Longfield’s new report, Hidden in Plain Sight: A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation and harm, warns that these figures are probably just the ‘tip of the iceberg.’
Hidden in Plain Sight argues for the creation of 1,000 Sure Start Plus Hubs by 2027 to co-ordinate and deliver health and education support for vulnerable teenagers. Established in and around schools, the hubs will be run by charities, public bodies, business, and philanthropy organisations.
Ms Longfield commented: ‘There are parts of our country where the state is completely failing in its duty to protect vulnerable children from the ongoing epidemic of county lines, criminal exploitation, and serious violence. This is a problem hidden in plain sight, rocket-boosted by Covid, which is disproportionately affecting teenagers in deprived and minority ethnic communities and also some families living in leafy suburbs.
‘It is a national threat to our country's prosperity and security, a threat which is ruining lives and scarring communities, and which is costing the NHS, schools, the police and criminal justice system, and the children's social care system billions of pounds every year.
‘A combination of Covid, the cost of living crisis, a possible return to austerity, and the legacy of underfunded and overstretched service will only increase these existing pressures on many vulnerable families and children. It is a gift to those whose aim is to exploit children.
‘This final report is our call to action. We are proposing a new national network called Sure Start Plus – a Sure Start for Teenagers. We believe it can offer a joined-up, national programme to enable local communities to protect and support teenagers at risk, as well as their families, and it can boost the life chances and educational prospects of children in England.’
Donna Molloy, director of policy at the Early Intervention Foundation, commented: ‘This report highlights the myriad of challenges facing vulnerable families right now. The current economic context families are facing has made many of these problems worse, compounded by the long lasting impact of lockdowns and Covid restrictions.
‘We know that early support – for example, for young people’s mental health or to strengthen family relationships – can help prevent problems from getting worse and harder to resolve. We must invest in the right support at the earliest opportunity, by providing interventions and services that have the best chance of meaningfully improving the lives of those who need them most.
‘Without action to secure the right support for young people, we will keep repeating a cycle without improving outcomes. This is why a focus on young people’s wellbeing and prospects through strategic, coordinated action at the national level is absolutely essential.’