Amber, 19, has waived her anonymity to tell her story.
From the age of 13 she bounced through the care system, on a journey to ever-greater isolation and abuse, which ended in her being placed in “prison-like” secure accommodation “for her own safety”.
Like many children, she was removed from home, in part, due to alleged parental neglect, but what she experienced in the coming years seems like state neglect; poor supervision, zero stability and being easy prey for sexual predators.
The care order was placed in March 2016, but a year later, time with her longest-running foster family ended abruptly, when the family decided they wanted to go on holiday without her, partly because she kept running away.
Eight further placements followed but in a matter of weeks she was moved to a children’s home and deemed “the most at risk child in the area”.
It comes as a new report has warned children’s social care in England needs a “radical reset” to stop the “cycle of escalating problems”.
Amber tells Sky News: “You just always wonder why you’re not good enough to stay there. And it’ll always be in the back of my mind – why wasn’t I good enough? Why didn’t they want me?”
Often, she ran back to her friends and family in Hull, but she wasn’t allowed to stay with her mother and became increasingly vulnerable.
She says: “When I was at home, if a male approached me, I’d be like, ‘why are you talking to me? Like, go away’ but being away, from, like a family area, people see the vulnerabilities.”
The system’s answer was to keep moving her. Aged 14, she was moved to a residential home 120 miles away.
Amber felt completely alone. She and another girl ran away and ended up at a man’s house who gave them brandy and asked to photograph them naked.
‘Like nothing had happened’
She says: “He told her to leave the room, then he raped me, and then rang his friend. His friend came and did the same thing.
“And then he just dropped us off at the train station like nothing had ever happened.”
What happened next, became a recurring theme in Amber’s story. The crime was reported to the police then seemingly forgotten. A few weeks later she ran off again, this time with two girls. One we will call Millie, also lived in care.
Millie went missing 280 times over a three-year period. Often, she would stay with strangers.
Millie told Sky News: “Not just people I’d met, people I’d talk to like on Facebook and stuff… I just wasn’t keeping myself safe. But I was just so desperate not to be at the kids’ home ‘cos I just felt so isolated.”
Millie says, aged 15, she got to know Amber through social media. Another girl, aged 14, introduced them to a group of men in Shrewsbury, who offered them alcohol and a place to stay.
More men were invited to the property and both girls say they were raped. The next day they went to the police.
Amber says: “They (the police) took pictures of my neck and obviously I told them what I knew, but no one, no one cared, like no one was interested at all.”
‘Random houses… dangerous men’
“We were more just viewed as like, runaways and just bad people rather than, like victims of CSE (child sexual exploitation).”
Millie says: “People look down on you, I’ve realised that. And the police, they’d just think ‘well she’s in care, so she’s naughty’.”
Warning: this episode (below) includes references to child abuse.
She adds: “Before I went into care, I’d say anyone who knew me, would say I was so innocent. I still think if I hadn’t gone into care, I wouldn’t have gone missing or gone off to random houses with dangerous men.”
West Mercia police told Sky News: “We can confirm that in 2018 we received a report of a number of offences and at the time, a full and thorough investigation was carried out by officers, however, there was not sufficient evidence to refer the investigation to the CPS.
“It takes great courage to come forward and report these offences, and we would like to offer our assurances that we will always investigate any claims of child sexual abuse with sensitivity and compassion.”
The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has strongly criticised the current system of looking after children from troubled backgrounds.
Bribed to lie to Ofsted
It recommends an additional £2.5bn investment, mostly to help families stay together, and end what chair Josh MacAlister calls the human tragedy of children’s social care.
Amber’s mother, who doesn’t want to be named, had four of her children removed from parental care after a marriage break up.
She was accused of alcohol and drug misuse but says: “I asked for a drug test. I was never given one.”
She believes her daughter would have been safer at home.
She says: “Amber changed, massively, and it was so worrying because nobody would listen. Nobody would do anything.
“All the police were bothered about was taking her back to where she needed to be.
“And all social services were bothered about was getting her back to where she needed to be. All the CSE was going on. And nobody cared. They just left her to it.”
Amber wanted to be with her parents and would continue to run home, only to be returned because it wasn’t allowed. Meanwhile, Amber says staff at the children’s home bribed her to lie to Ofsted inspectors.
She says of the time of the Ofsted report: “I wanted a new coat at the time, and they said that if I spoke well (to the inspectors) then they’d give me money for a new coat.”
Hard drugs and criminal gangs
In August 2018 Amber was moved to a specialist Child Sexual Exploitation unit, even further away from home.
She says: “Every single girl in there had been exploited. I realised quite quickly that all they wanted to do was just go and meet men because that’s what was all normal to them.
“But, with my stuff it was all quite fresh with what happened to me. So I didn’t want to. But when people are like saying ‘Come on, come on’, you’re quite influenced to go.
“But the home itself was just shocking. Like the staff – no one really spoke to you. The managers just stayed in the office all day and didn’t really interact. There was no specialist care.”
Within days, Amber had run away with other girls from the home to south London. Here she was introduced to hard drugs and was again raped – this time by men in criminal gangs.
Over a two-and-a-half-year period Amber had gone missing 106 times. Returning to her residential home there was an immediate application to move her to a secure unit.
Her mother read a social services report about Amber and says: “I read the first page, and I started crying. I couldn’t even read it… Just the horrific sexual abuse. Knives, drugs, alcohol. Many, many men – I wouldn’t even call them men, just animals.”
Closer to loved ones
She adds: “Parents are powerless, because as far as they’re concerned, we’ve lost our kids. So ‘you can just be quiet’, you know, ‘you can’t say anything. We’ve got the care order’.”
Amber feels like no one was interested in what had happened to her. She describes the secure unit as “like a prison”. She was strip searched on the way in and kept in a locked room for long hours.
She says: “I think at the time, they just thought ‘out of sight, out of mind’ because I was locked up in a secure unit – I’m not going to tell anyone.
“I just thought ‘why am I here, when they are walking the streets?’ I think I was more just seen as a runaway. There was no ‘Why are you doing this? Are you okay’?”
The top 10 childcare providers made £300m profit last year. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care suggests a windfall tax on them to help pay for help for families in crisis, to try to keep them together.
In a raft of recommendations, it calls for new methods of keeping children in wider family networks, closer to their loved ones.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email email@example.com in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK