Foster children went missing from their Wigan homes on no fewer than 330 occasions in the space of a year, shock new figures show.
But while some local authorities have been criticised for not completing mandatory safeguarding measures designed to protect runaway foster children from exploitation, Wigan Council says it is offering help to all.
The Local Government Association says growing pressures on councils mean it is becoming “increasingly difficult” to make sure vulnerable children are given the support they need.
Councils are legally required to offer a return home interview to children who go missing from foster care once they are back, in which they can discuss the reasons why they ran away.
They are intended to identify problems in their foster placement, and to assess whether they have been exposed to risks such as sexual exploitation while missing.
Wigan Council has a missing from home (MFH) team which offer “return home interviews” (RHIs) to all children who are reported missing from home.
Children who are in care are primarily offered an RHI by their allocated social worker, they are also offered an independent one by an independent missing from home worker from The
Children’s Society. Children who are not looked after but are open to social care are also offered a RHI by The Children’s Society Worker.
A spokesman for the council said: “Any children who are not open to social care will be offered a RHI by a MFH worker also.
“From September 2018 to September 2019 there were 330 episodes for children in care, 56.9 per cent accepted RHIs and all would have been offered a RHI either from their social worker or the independent worker.”
The 56.9 rate is slightly higher than the national average.
The biggest reason for going missing, according to national figures, is the children seeking contact with other family members.
But other motives include bullying, sexual abuse and substance misuse.
The vast majority go missing for less than a fortnight.
Iryna Pona, policy manager at charity the Children’s Society, said: “Return home interviews are really important as they show the child that professionals care.
“They are also a key opportunity for children’s services to understand if the child is at risk, if they are being groomed to go missing, or if they are not happy in their care placement so the right support can then be organised for them.”
A parliamentary report on young runaways published earlier this year highlighted children in care’s vulnerability to being groomed for sexual and criminal exploitation – a risk that is heightened when they go missing.
It followed a 2016 inquiry which found local authorities were failing to conduct return home interviews properly, share information about risks to children, or develop plans to safeguard them.
Across England, almost 6,400 foster children went missing a total of 27,000 times over the course of 2018-19.
More than half of all missing episodes (56 per cent) did not result in an interview taking place.
Children placed directly with the local authority were more likely to be interviewed than those with private fostering agencies – 50 per cent compared to just 30 per cent.
Local authorities are responsible for ensuring all interviews are offered, however.
The figures also reveal “huge variations” in uptake rates across the country – something the Children’s Society described as concerning.
Four local authorities failed to offer a single interview, while eight had a 100 per cent record.
Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said return home interviews were “imperative” to get children the help they need.
She continued: “Faced with growing pressures, it is becoming increasingly difficult for councils to offer all children the support they deserve.
“High vacancy and turnover rates are also putting pressure on social workers, who are having to manage increasingly high caseloads.
“Councils want to work with the new government to improve retention and to encourage more professionals to work in children’s social care, while investing properly in the services vulnerable children and young people need.”