The exploitation of children by criminal gangs is adding to a sharp rise in the number of youngsters in care in Flintshire, according to the county’s most senior social services figure.
The area had been badly hit by the growing influx of county lines gangs from big cities, who police say are responsible for roping vulnerable youngsters into trafficking drugs across north Wales.
Officials from Flintshire Council have now revealed that such networks are also contributing to an increase in the amount of looked after children.
Figures published by the local authority show numbers have sky-rocketed by 57 per cent in the last eight years from from 160 children in 2011 to the current level of 251.
Neil Ayling, Flintshire’s chief officer for social services, said county lines operations had contributed, along with high levels of parents abusing drugs or alcohol, people experiencing mental health issues and domestic violence cases.
He added the county’s geographic location made it more susceptible to organised crime originating from cities in the north west of England.
Speaking at a meeting held today, he said: “We’ve all rightly seen the concern nationally about county lines and county lines does impact this part of the world.
“We’re a border county, we’re close to the major metropolitan areas and you can see that clearly impacts Flintshire around child sexual exploitation and criminal exploitation.
“That is the reality of some of our young people’s lives unfortunately in this part of the world.
“We’re having to have new services working across agencies with police, education and health to target those areas.”
A new missing person co-ordinator role has been creates jointly with other organisations as part of a bid to address the issue of exploitation.
It involves a dedicated staff member who is responsible for visiting missing youngsters after they return home to discover the reason for their disappearance, as well as where they went and who with.
A help hub has also been set up in an attempt to prevent family break downs.
During the meeting, one senior councillor compared the current problems faced by children in Flintshire to those experienced during the Victorian era.
Cllr Christine Jones, cabinet member for social services, said: “We’ve got county lines coming in, Universal Credit and deprived areas in many of our villages and towns.
“Everything is amalgamating to make these issues so much bigger than they used to be five or ten years ago.
“Children are so vulnerable, and they live in such a terrible time – it’s like going back to the Victorian era.
“These are major issues and they are contributing to these children having to go into care unfortunately. It’s a really sad state of affairs.”
The problems with child exploitation were revealed in a report which shows the council is projected to go over its budget by almost £3m this year.
Around £2m of that amount is due to the demand for children’s care placements as the authority becomes more dependent on external foster agencies and care homes.
The report shows individual placements with agency foster carers cost approximately £44,000 per year, which is almost double the rate for those recruited by the authority itself.
Meanwhile, in some cases it has been forced to fork out as much as £520,000 a year to put children into residential care.
Chief executive Colin Everett said giving council tax discounts was one of the incentives on offer to attract more in-house foster carers and lower costs.
He added: “Local solutions and trying to extend the fostering network out are our biggest hopes.
“We’re working in a very unregulated and expensive market here, which isn’t good value or necessarily the right quality.”
At the end of the meeting, members of the council’s corporate resources scrutiny committee called for the Welsh Government to assist with the cost of residential care for children with complex needs.
By Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here).
Feature Image: Gov.uk