THOUSANDS of kids in care are being dumped in illegal homes sparking fears they could be targeted by sexual predators, a probe has found.
The number of vulnerable children being placed in unsafe accommodation across the UK is on the increase due to a major lack of place, the Guardian reports .
Many of the homes include those unregulated or not registered with Ofsted.
In some cases, youngsters have even been placed in boats or caravans by councils in what is being branded a "national scandal".
Now, MPs, cops, charities and the children's commissioner have fired a stark warning that children thrown into these homes are at risk of exploitation from sexual predators and drug gangs.
A Guardian investigation has found the number of times children were housed in unregulated accommodation rose by 22% between 2016-17 and 2018-19.
The number increased from 4,814 to 5,874, according to data obtained from 112 councils through freedom of information requests.
The number of times children were placed in unregistered homes rose from 129 to 212 in the same period.
And the average annual cost of placements was between £ 9,714 a year and £ 364,980, meaning the total bill across all authorities is likely to run into the millions.
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The children's commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said placing children in unregulated homes was “simply unacceptable”.
She said: "I understand that there is a serious shortage of accommodation for older children in care but on their behalf we should never accept anything less than genuinely high-quality caring places that would pass appropriate levels of scrutiny.
"This is another example of managing a crisis not finding a solution to a crisis. These children deserve better from us all."
Ann Coffey, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for runaway and missing children, added: "The government must act and make it unlawful for local authorities to place children in these illegal settings and Ofsted should take immediate action to close down these homes.
"It cannot be right that they are being placed in care settings with minimum checks on who is providing the accommodation. It's a national scandal."
A recent parliamentary inquiry into the issue of children being used to traffic drugs found that 80% of 41 police forces in England and Wales expressed concern about unregulated accommodation.
'IT CANNOT BE RIGHT'
Iryna Pona, the policy manager from the Children's Society, said: "And there is an increasing number of children with complex needs being taken into care," she said.
"Vulnerable teenagers placed in unregulated accommodation are at risk of being groomed for sexual and criminal exploitation.
"Our research has shown that teenagers may be housed with vulnerable adults and be exposed to or groomed with drugs and alcohol, they may also go missing and be subject to physical violence and verbal abuse.
"The quality of accommodation and support provided in these types of placements varies greatly from one place to another and from one area to another.
"Staff often aren't sufficiently trained in protecting young people from criminal and sexual exploitation."
Of the 109 councils that responded to freedom of information requests, Kent county council said it used unregulated accommodation the most frequently.
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It recorded 452 placements in 2016-17, 312 the following year and 326 in 2018-19.
Sarah Hammond, the director of children's social services at Kent county council, said: "We pay for quite a substantial amount of support – some young people in these places are having upwards of 35 hours of support each week."
Yvette Stanley, Ofsted's national director for social care, said: "Over the last 12 months we've investigated 150 places that were not registered with us and when we went out and looked, only 30 need not register with us – the rest should have done. "