Thousands of vulnerable children are magnets for paedophiles and county lines drugs gangs because councils are sending them away from friends and family, MPs have warned.
Children are being placed in “grave danger” by the very professionals who should protect them, an inquiry by the all Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults found.
It heard how thousands of children are being moved to children’s homes up to 100 miles from where they live, forcing them to be isolated from friends, family and social workers.
Branded the “sent away generation”, the inquiry found they can become susceptible to paedophiles and county lines gangs who export illegal drugs out of cities into smaller towns.
Councils may also inadvertently be opening new county lines by relocating children already groomed to sell heroin and crack cocaine, the inquiry found.
Local authorities are in effect acting as “recruiting sergeants” for the gangs, it added.
Of the 41 police forces the APPG got responses from, more than 70 per cent said placing children out of area increased their risk of exploitation, which could coerce them into going missing.
Some children run back home or are enticed to run away by those exploiting them.
Department for Education figures found 64 per cent of all children living in children’s homes last year lived out of area – an increase from 46 per cent in 2012.
And the number of children reported missing from out of area placements has more than doubled since 2015, from 990 to 1,990 in 2018, government figures found.
Independent Group for Change MP Ann Coffey, chairwoman of the APPG, said: “It is a national scandal that local authorities are unwittingly becoming recruiting sergeants for county lines drugs gangs by sending so many children miles away. It must stop.
“Children are being systematically failed and placed in grave danger by the very professionals who are there to protect them.
“By placing so many children out of area, councils are complicit in adding to the trauma of already neglected and abused children.
“Our inquiry has shone a light into the shady twilight world of unregulated accommodation for children aged 16 and over, who become magnets for paedophiles and county lines drugs gangs. This accommodation must be regulated and inspected.”
Mark Russell, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said the inquiry heard “truly shocking” examples of trauma experienced by children.
“It should be a wake-up call for urgent action at both the national and local level,” he added.
“These children are some of the most vulnerable in society, it is vital their needs are put at the centre of all decisions about their placement.
“No looked after child should be placed simply because that is where a bed is free, instead of that is where the child is most likely to receive the care, support and sense of belonging they deserve.
“We are calling on the government to put in place an action plan and give councils more funding to ensure that there is a sufficient number of good quality, regulated and inspected care placements where children need them.
“Only then can we stop this epidemic of children being sent away, left feeling isolated and exposed to high risk.”
The charity has previously criticised the “haphazard response” from local agencies after a seven-year-old child was found to have been recruited by a county lines drug gang.