Safety of care home young is paramount
When we hear of a child or young person being taken into care the obvious inference is that they have been taken to a place where they will be looked after and their safety assured. That is undoubtedly what happens in the vast majority of cases, but statistics given by the PSNI reveal that significant numbers are perhaps not as safe as one would hope.
In the last year police investigated 2,700 reports of young people going missing from children's homes across Northern Ireland, a figure equivalent to almost eight cases a day.
These are vulnerable young people. That is why they end up in care in the first instance, and it is worrying that so many go missing for sufficient time to raise concerns among care home staff, who then call in the police.
Chief Constable George Hamilton makes the point that investigating these cases causes a drain on manpower and finance - the annual bill is £3.1m - although, quite rightly, it is the safety of the young people that must remain paramount when considering this issue.
It is encouraging that the PSNI is working closely with the Health and Social Care Board to address the problem. Each has its own expertise, and by jointly examining what can and should be done it is more likely that an appropriate course of action will result.
Critics may wonder why social services cannot guarantee the safety of the young people and prevent them absconding from care homes. But even young people have rights which must be respected and cannot be kept under surveillance 24 hours a day.
Yet, given what happened in places like Rochdale and Rotherham, where young girls in care were sexually exploited over a number of years, it is natural that alarm bells should ring given the number of young people absconding from care homes here, even for a short period of time.
Initiatives being undertaken by the police and social services include identifying those most at risk of going missing or being exploited and putting in place protocols to increase their safeguarding. This is a sensible and proactive approach and it has already been shown to pay dividends in one Belfast care home, where the absconding rate has been reduced by half.
It is not an easy task to look after vulnerable young people, but the problems have been identified and positive action is being taken.