A NEW safeguarding team will be set up to protect children at risk from sexual and criminal exploitation and other complex issues.

This week, St Helens Council’s cabinet approved a raft of proposals around edge of care and complex safeguarding services, with the aim of reducing the number of children who go into care.

Among the proposals are to establish complex safeguarding services to protect children who may be at risk of significant harm.

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A council report that sets out the proposals revealed that 22 children aged between 11 and 17 are known by children’s services as being at risk of child sexual exploitation.

All but one were female.

“The signs and indicators of all forms of abuse can be difficult to detect and child sexual exploitation is no exception,” the council report said.

“A variety of factors can make it difficult to accurately assess how prevalent child sexual exploitation is.

“Many children who are sexually exploited may have been victims of other forms of abuse; the grooming methods that may be used can mean that children who are sexually exploited do not always recognise they are being abused, which can also affect detection rates.

“What is clear is that child sexual exploitation can occur in all communities and amongst all social groups can affect girls and boys.”

In addition to child sexual exploitation, 27 children aged between 13 and 17 are known to children’s services as being at risk of child criminal exploitation, which is often referred to as “county lines”.

County Lines is when gangs from big cities expand into smaller towns, often using violence to drive out local dealers and exploiting children to sell drugs.

“There is currently no legal definition of county lines or criminal exploitation and very little guidance,” the report said.

“Currently, the criminal exploitation of children and young people are not fully understood by services working with young people, which has an impact on the response that a young person receives.

“Trafficking and criminal exploitation are forms of abuse and therefore should be afforded a safeguarding response.

“Often the visible symptoms of this abuse are responded to, meaning that many young people receive a criminal justice response and their safeguarding needs can be overlooked as a result.”

The complex safeguarding team will coordinate and support multi-agency safeguarding in respect to a range of complex issues.

These include domestic abuse, including honour-based violence and forced marriages, modern slavery and trafficking, female genital mutilation and radicalisation and extremism.

The complex safeguarding team was one of a series of proposals that were approved by cabinet.

The cabinet report says the new services will help safely reduce the need to statutory social work intervention in family life and reduce the need for children and young people to be taken into care.

In 2018-2019, a total of 127 children and young people became looked after by the council.

This raised the total number of children looked after by the authority to 472, as of March 31 of this year, a seven per cent rise on the previous year.

St Helens has also seen an increase in the number of children in need, from 1,567 children in 2017-2018 to 1,830 in 2018-19.

Levels of both looked-after children and children in needs are significantly higher than comparable regional, national and statistical neighbour averages.

The direct cost to the council of children in care in 2018-19 was £21.5 million, according to a cabinet report on the new proposals.

One of the proposals is to open an ‘Edge of Care Hub’, which will provide psychological support, along with support from the police, health workers and speech and language therapists.

A new residential unit that offers intensive residential and respite support to young people aged 12 years and over is also part of the plans.

St Helens Star:

Labour's Joe Pearson, cabinet member for protecting young people

Speaking at cabinet, Cllr Joe Pearson, cabinet member for protecting young people, said: “The Edge of Care Hub will offer a multi-agency response to children and young people at risk of entering care, inclusive of a residential unit to offer intensive residential and respite support for children and young people aged 12 and above for a maximum of 75 days.

“The associated cost of funding is requested to be met from council reserves.

“The intended outcome is to reduce the number of children and young people from entering care and to reduce their length of time in care, before safely returning to their families where possible.”

As part of the implementation of the proposals, it is intended that 12 vacant posts are deleted.

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Cabinet approved the use of an additional £400,000 from its children’s services reserves to facilitate the implementation of new edge of care and complex safeguarding services.

It is estimated an additional £400,000 will be required in the current financial year to progress towards the new service structure.

The proposals will also require a recurring increase to the departmental budget of just less than £2 million.