Councils who run care homes don't collect statistics, nor does the government, so we don't actually know how bad the problem is. These were the stark findings of a report by MPs last summer.
Bubbling under the surface in web forums often frequented by what many would dismiss as conspiracy theorists are some shocking but unsubstantiated allegations relating to systematic abuse of children in care.
Allegations bordering on surreal often focus on an elite paedophile network linked to the establishment, and a question by respected MP Tom Watson in Parliament on Wednesday about a "powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No 10" raised a small possibility that some of these theories may be based on fact.
Whether or not abuse is linked to powerful individuals shouldn't in fact matter. More pressing is the fact that children are being abused in care, as the recent Rochdale "grooming" case and historical scandals like the massive North Wales homes scandal uncovered in the 1990s goes to show.
The lack of data on missing children is crucial to monitoring this problem. The most horrific (unsubstantiated) allegations mooted online involve the abuse and ultimate murder of children in care.
Note: as I mentioned in a previous post on secrecy and speculation, I can't actually link to source material because many of these websites make unsubstantiated and potentially libellous allegations about living people.
These at first implausible-sounding allegations become a little more believable when you factor in three utterly bleak and depressing facts about life in care:
- Children are often placed in care miles away from their home towns (sometimes for valid reasons). [Source: BBC]. Children with no friends in a strange town are even less likely to be missed.
- Poor data sharing is leading to "data gaps" meaning there's little if any national oversight of children who go missing from care. [Source: parliamentary report].
- Local authorities and institutional carers are corporate bodies where parental responsibility is distributed over many people working for these organisations.
Because of the above it's entirely plausible that a child in care could fall into the hands of abusers and be murdered; and no-one would be aware a crime had even been committed until a body or other physical evidence, or confession from one of the abusers, emerged.
I set out to use government statistics to disprove some of the wilder conspiracy theories relating to the abuse and disappearance of children in care, but have ended up more shocked by the lack of oversight of the care system itself.
It beggars belief that a nation which tracks data from employment levels to the slaughter of pigs, cattle and sheep; and is soon to track the sending and receiving of every email and other electronic message - partly in the name of child protection - fails to track children actually in its care.
This post is part of my ongoing fascination with online rumour and speculation.