The independent review of children’s social care final report makes 72 recommendations to reform the care system. Children’s rights charity ECPAT UK (Every Child Protected Against Trafficking UK) welcomes the review’s focus on relationships and support for children in need; the need to tackle harms outside of the home in improved child protection responses; and improving experiences of care, but is concerned that without proper resourcing for children's services and children's social care, the structural changes proposed may result in further obfuscation of children's existing rights to protection and care.

ECPAT UK gave detailed submissions to the review’s calls for evidence and ideas, both separately and as part of the Refugee and Migrant Children’s Consortium. We are pleased that the review recognises the significant disadvantages to non-British children which result in further exploitation, but there is a distinct lack of consideration of the specific issues facing child victims of modern slavery and unaccompanied children as part of its broader recommendations.

The challenges children face within the immigration and asylum system as looked after children and care leavers is mentioned by the review in terms of ‘acknowledging the wider context’. This lack of regard is disappointing, given unaccompanied children arriving in the UK are still being left outside of the child protection system, placed in hotels by the Home Office pending transfer into Local Authorities through the National Transfer Scheme. The exclusion of an entire group of children from the basic protections afforded to all children in England by The Children Act 1989 is a striking omission from the review. It is vital that the report’s emphasis on ‘Family Help’ does not result in their further marginalisation.

We welcome the report’s emphasis on a more coherent and joined up protection response to all forms of child exploitation involving criminal justice, community safety and anti-trafficking actors. The recommendation to ensure that the devolved pilot for child National Referral Mechanism decisions is rolled out nationally is a commendable step forward for children who have been exploited and a key reform that ECPAT UK has championed for over eight years, most recently in our joint report with the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner. Given the rising numbers of referrals of children criminally exploited and those who are criminalised as a result, the recommendation for alignment for youth justice policy to be moved to the Department for Education is particularly welcome.

The recommendation for independent advocates for care experienced children and young people and offered proactively, is very welcome.  It is disappointing, however, that this is recommended as a replacement for the very distinct role of Independent Reviewing Officers who scrutinise local authority care and decision-making and hold it to account.

We are also disappointed that the review does not call for access to an Independent Legal Guardian for all trafficked and separated children from a service commissioned by the Department for Education and regulated by OFSTED. In England and Wales, Section 48 of the Modern Slavery Act sets out provision for Independent Child Trafficking Advocates (ICTAs) now called Independent Child Trafficking Guardians (ICTG). Unlike Scotland and Northern Ireland, this service is not available to all separated and unaccompanied children in line with international standards, but rather only for children who are identified as potentially trafficked through the National Referral Mechanism. Unlike other services for vulnerable children, this role is not inspected by OFSTED and the contract is commissioned by the Home Office, not a suitable department to provide an independent advocacy service to vulnerable children.

We welcome the call for all children in care to live in a home where they receive care but we are disappointed that the well-evidenced link between unregulated accommodation and exploitation has not resulted in a call to ban all unregulated accommodation for children in care. The review recommends ‘new and ambitious care standards, applicable across all homes for children’ to be introduced, yet seems in the interim at least, to maintain support for current government regulations to only ban this accommodation provision for under-16s, leaving older teenagers at risk of exploitation.  The review also recommends a new lifelong guardianship order should be created, a welcome reform to kinship care, but one which is unattainable for children in migration with no family members in England

Current siloed approaches to safeguarding children limit improved outcomes for survivors of child trafficking. The review contains no mention of the need to expand (to all local authorities in England) specialist services for child victims such as the current pilot called ‘The Lighthouse’, a Barnahus model multi-agency and multi-disciplinary service for children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse and exploitation. This approach is supported by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings Evaluation Report UK third evaluation round which recommends that the UK further develop this good example of child-friendly justice which can enhance the protection of child victims of trafficking.

Other recommendations highlighted as key concerns for child victims, such as the challenges to access Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), waiting periods and lack of specialist services for children with English as a second language are welcome. In recognition of the need for specialist support to help them recover from the trauma and abuse they have experienced, the review’s recommendation that poor mental health issues should be a core part of training programmes for any professionals working with children should break down barriers to access but will not solve the under-resourcing, nor the high demand and consequent high thresholds.

Given the significant decrease in universal services and funding for local authority children’s services and social care over the last 12 years, rising child poverty, structural disadvantage and health inequality, the impact of Covid19 and the increased need for mental health support for children and young people, it is hard to support the whole system reform programme set out by the review, particularly when balanced against the £2.6 billion funding proposed to achieve its ambition which doesn’t cover the £4 billion blackhole faced by councils.