WILTSHIRE Council is failing to carry out mandatory safeguarding measures designed to protect runaway foster children from exploitation, new figures show.

The Local Government Association says growing pressures on councils mean it is becoming “increasingly difficult” to make sure vulnerable children are given the support they need.

Councils are legally required to offer a return home interview to children who go missing from foster care once they are back, in which they can discuss the reasons why they ran away.

They are intended to identify problems in their foster placement, and to assess whether they have been exposed to risks such as sexual exploitation while missing.

New figures from Ofsted show foster children in Wiltshire went missing on 70 occasions during 2018-19.

But only 25 return home interviews were carried out during this time – a rate of around 36 per cent. This was lower than the England average. The figures have been rounded to the nearest five.

Iryna Pona, policy manager at charity the Children’s Society, said: “Return home interviews are really important as they show the child that professionals care.

“They are also a key opportunity for children’s services to understand if the child is at risk, if they are being groomed to go missing, or if they are not happy in their care placement so the right support can then be organised for them.”

A parliamentary report on young runaways published earlier this year highlighted children in care’s vulnerability to being groomed for sexual and criminal exploitation – a risk that is heightened when they go missing.

It followed a 2016 enquiry which found local authorities were failing to conduct return home interviews properly, share information about risks to children, or develop plans to safeguard them.

Across England, almost 6,400 foster children went missing a total of 27,000 times over the course of 2018-19.

More than half of all missing episodes did not result in an interview taking place.

Children placed directly with the local authority were more likely to be interviewed than those with private fostering agencies – 50 per cent compared to just 30 per cent.

Local authorities are responsible for ensuring all interviews are offered, however.

The figures also reveal “huge variations” in uptake rates across the country – something the Children’s Society described as concerning.

Four local authorities failed to offer a single interview, while eight had a 100 per cent record.

A Wiltshire Council  spokesperson said: “In their inspection in June this year Ofsted reported that our response when children go missing is largely effective, with well-co-ordinated plans to locate and safeguard children. They noted that there was more that we could do to ensure Missing Return Interviews are completed and recorded promptly when children in our care go missing. We have taken swift action to address this and our performance has improved, today 80% children who have gone missing are offered a return interview within the prescribed timescale.

“Additionally Wiltshire is one of five local authorities who were successful in our bid to work with the University of Bedfordshire over three years to develop and embed our response to Contextual Safeguarding which includes our response to children who are risk of exploitation and includes children who go missing."

Judith Blake, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “Faced with growing pressures, it is becoming increasingly difficult for councils to offer all children the support they deserve.

“Councils want to work with the new government to improve retention and to encourage more professionals to work in children’s social care.”