Maxine Frith: The neglect that reduces girls to a life on
Research found that 42 per cent of young prostitutes had been in care at some point
14 December 2006 http://comment.independent.co.uk/
Much has been made in the last few days of the link between drugs and
prostitution; of how a middle-class teenager can end up as a red light district
murder victim because of an all-enveloping addiction to heroin or crack.
The discovery of the bodies of five prostitutes in the last 11 days has led to much hand-wringing over why women are lured into an occupation that is so dangerous, and are continuing to work on the streets even when a serial killer is obviously at large.
One place to look for the answers should be the care system. The term coined for children who have the state as a parent is "looked after" - a phrase that becomes tragically laughable when one looks at the appalling life chances offered to youngsters who start off or end up in such a situation.
There are 60,000 children in the care system, either looked after in residential homes or by foster parents - and, according to a recent report by the Centre for Policy Studies, thousands of them are being betrayed by the very system that is supposed to protect them from harm.
The Government's own research highlights how the care system is not simply a negligent parent but at times probably more dangerous than the family from which some children have been taken. A study commissioned by the Home Office has looked at the link between hard drug use, sex work and various vulnerability factors. The results are astonishing, if not heartbreaking.
Less than 1 per cent of the child population is looked after by the state, but the research found that 42 per cent of young women prostitutes interviewed had been in care at some point in their lives. "This is an extraordinary figure, which demonstrates that looked after children are very vulnerable to involvement in drug use and sexual abuse through prostitution," the report concluded.
Prostitutes are, by the very nature of their work, often women with damaged, chaotic lives and serious health issues such as drug addiction, but those who have been in care are even more damaged, the report found.
Those who had experience of state involvement in their upbringing had, on average, started selling their bodies at 17 - three years younger than those who had not been in care. "Looked-after" prostitutes had started using hard drugs two years earlier than their counterparts - at a disturbingly young age of 15.1 years. Three quarters of non-care-system prostitutes admitted that they had a drugs problem - for alumni of care and foster homes, that figure rose to 94 per cent.
Time in the system effectively becomes a factor in how young people are "trapped" into prostitution and serious drug addiction. The lack of any effective parenting or monitoring of already vulnerable children means that they are prime targets for men wanting to groom girls into sex work
Children in care homes are often left free to come and go even late at night because there are not enough staff to keep track of them, and sometimes because misguided policies dictate that it is "within the rights" of a young teenager to choose when or if to come to bed.
High turnovers and vacancy rates mean that children often have no idea who their individual social workers are. According to the Government's Green Paper, Care Matters, only a quarter of care homes are meeting even 90 per cent of national minimum standards.
The assumption may be that foster care will be preferred over a residential home, but even this service leaves a lot to be desired. More than a third of fostering services also fail to meet national minimum standards. More than half of all teenagers now gain five good GCSE grades - for children in care that slumps to just 11 per cent.
And by the age of 16, many children in care are simply abandoned to fend for themselves - youngsters already on the margins of life are tipped into the abyss before they have even reached adulthood. A quarter of girls are pregnant by the time they leave state care and half are single mothers within two years. Half of prisoners under 25 have been in the system and one third of homeless people have been "looked after".
This lack of life chances creates a perfect training ground for young women to graduate to prostitution - abused by their parents, neglected by the state - selling their bodies for sex may seem to them like the only choice they have.
The Centre for Policy Studies report said that a successful care system could halve the number of prostitutes and homeless people and cut the prison population by a third. The Government has, belatedly, begun to address this scandal. Launching Care Matters in October, the Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, said that the failings were "inexcusable and shameful", and promised a raft of reforms to transform the system.
The prostitutes found murdered in Ipswich were all reported missing by their families who, even though they may have had to deal with their daughters' drug addictions and sex work, still had an idea about where they were. For their fellow sex workers who have a history of state care, there may be no such concerned relative waiting for a phone call to let them know they are safe.
Criminologists say it is likely the Suffolk attacker has struck before. There may be other victims, unloved and un-photographed, who have not even been registered as missing because no one has missed them.