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Unacceptable, unnecessary harm to vulnerable adolescents being failed by maze of services

22 February 2023

  • Failure of ownership and ‘reluctant’ leadership by Government
  • Safeguarding systems not working in some areas with tragic consequences
  • Increase in overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in youth justice system

The estimated lifetime cost of adverse outcomes for all children who have ever needed a social worker is £23 billion every year. In a report today the Public Accounts Committee says the social and personal costs of harm and adverse outcomes to vulnerable adolescents who are being failed by the system are unacceptably and unnecessarily high.

There is a ‘puzzling reluctance’ across Whitehall to provide strategic leadership, while fragmented ownership across agencies and departments leaves young people to fall through the cracks. The safeguarding structures are not working in some areas, sometimes with tragic consequences.  With no one department or agency with overall responsibility, the risk is that the buck gets passed.

The Committee is extremely concerned about the waiting time for children to receive support for mental health issues, with some of a group of 750 children and young people in Gloucestershire waiting over 18 months for mental health treatment. 

The problem is significant: nearly one in five 6- to 16-year-olds in England had a probable mental health disorder in 2021, and almost 40% have experienced a deterioration in mental health since 2017. There is also a much higher proportion of adolescent girls using mental health services – 18% compared to 11% of boys.

While the number of children in youth custody across all ethnicities fell by 73% from 2010-11 to 2020-21, the proportion from ethnic minority backgrounds increased from 32% to 53%. Young black boys aged 10-17 are 2.8 times more likely to enter the youth justice system than would be expected given the proportion of black children this age in the population. The number of mixed heritage children in the youth justice system has doubled since 2010. But the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office lack curiosity about the over-representation of children from ethnic minority backgrounds in youth custody and still appear to have no plan to address the situation.

Chair's comments

Dame Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“The Department for Education tells us that it holds the ring across Government on supporting and protecting adolescents, but in the same breath had to say it hadn’t even started work on the harms from social media. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are grossly overrepresented in the youth justice system, a problem that’s been obvious and growing for a decade, but there’s no sign of action or even special attention to the issue.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that our young people, especially the ones who were already vulnerable and at risk, are being treated as an afterthought. Too often they fall the cracks of different services and are left to fend for themselves. The financial cost of these failures is already a bank-breaking £23 billion a year. Is the Government prepared to fund what that will grow to, when the problems it’s failing to tackle now come home to roost?

And there is no number that can be put on a child dying because of a failure to co-ordinate across so-called safeguarding services. After this report, we expect Government to produce an annual update on how it’s improving outcomes for adolescents. Not the plans and programmes it’s making – we want to see the evidence of better outcomes, every year.”

Further information

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