In February 2019, The Guardian ran a story about a ‘group of parents’ who were intending to take legal action against their local authorities, to ensure their children were housed in residential care homes closer to where they live. The children were looked after by the local authorities, but this wasn’t about the parents trying to wrestle back full care of their children. Instead it was a challenge as to why childrens social care had accommodated the children so far away from the area where the parents lived. However, the headline was slightly misleading because the story focussed solely on one father’s dispute with Bromley social services. The author of the article appeared to have used a fair amount of artistic licence in suggesting that there was a wave of parents ready to take on the system over the use of out-of-borough placements. However, the news piece did raise the very important issue of children being accommodated far away from the local authority who ultimately have responsibility for their care.
In this case the child had been placed in the Midlands, some 130 miles away from his original home in south-London. The child’s father argued that the distance was a significant problem when it came to visiting and supporting the child, hindering his attempts to rebuild his relationship with his son and eventually welcome him back to the family home. The unnamed father also raised issues over the quality of his son’s education and safeguarding whilst placed so far away. Despite concentrating on the one father, the author is correct when suggesting that this is very common problem, quoting figures collated by the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) for runaway and missing children and adults. These figures show out of area placements have increased by 77% since 2012.
In May 2018 the chair of the APPG raised these concerns in the national media. Ann Coffey MP, used the phrase “farmed out” when referring to vulnerable children placed in care home far away from their home boroughs. Mrs Coffey accused the government of not honouring a pledge made in 2012 to reduce the number of out-of-borough placements. She pointed out that rather than a reduction, there had been a significant increase, with 61% of children in residential care now placed ‘out of area’. The APPG argued that out of area placements makes children more vulnerable to exploitation and impacts on the pacing authority’s ability to safeguard them adequately. This claim was supported by the NSPCC who linked distant placements to children missing from care, highlighting the fact that a missing child is at greater risk of physical abuse, grooming and sexual exploitation.
Never one to mince her words, Mrs Coffey also suggested that the reason for the rise was because of the lack of choice in care provision. She accused private children’s home of capitalising on the lack of provision, by inflating the prices they charge local authorities, to accommodate the ever-growing number of children in care. She also said that the “private sector marketplace in social care is catastrophically failing children. The system is working in the interests of the providers but not for the children themselves. It is not fit for purpose.”
Unsurprisingly these comments drew the ire of children home providers, represented by the Independent Children’s Homes Association (ICHA). They questioned the statistics relied on by the APPG, suggesting that they were unreliable and gave a false impression. The ICHA also said in a statement that the link between out-of-area placements and children going missing, child sexual exploitation, offending, drugs, could not be substantiated with the data that was relied on. Unfortunately the ICHA did stretch the imagination a bit, when they also suggested that the number of children going missing is “very low”, which is simply not the case in the UK.
Whilst the idea of allowing a child to live near their home and within their own local authority area is the ideal situation, there will always be children who require out of authority placements to ensure that there is effective safeguarding in place. However, out of area and distant placements should be kept to a minimum and be case specific. Unfortunately, we have found with missing children the reality is somewhat different. We feel that there are far too many children placed in distant placements when there appears to be no valid reason for doing so, other than the lack of local care provision.
Whilst we often advise and push for local authorities to place certain children far away from their home area, we would only come to this view after much deliberation, seeing it as one of the last tactical options left to safeguard an individual child. Out of area or distant placements should be the exception rather than the rule, but unfortunately, we have seen many examples where children are placed in certain areas because of a lack of children’s home availability locally, or in the mistaken belief that placing a child far away will prevent them going missing. It rarely gets to the heart of the issue.
We would generally only advise distant placements where there is a real danger to the child, if they were to remain in their home area. Examples would be where the child is likely to exploited by a gang, is involved in county lines drug trafficking or is extremely vulnerable to CSE. Even in these circumstances we are mindful that this not always the right thing to do. Where a child is placed out of area, it is crucial that procedures are followed, regardless of whether the child is placed in Ofsted regulated provision, or semi-independent accommodation. Below is what should happen to ensure effective safeguarding.