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A Safeguarding Hub – 25 minutes read

In November last year, the Guardian published a rather scathing assessment of the care system in England and Wales, focussing on residential homes for children. The news story carried the headline “Vulnerable children ‘treated like cattle’ in care home system”. The thread of the investigation was to highlight that children’s care homes were “in a state of crisis”. It made grim reading, painting a bleak picture and making no mention of the many dedicated people, who on a daily basis do their best to look after and safeguard some very vulnerable children.

Sadly though, in our view some of what was written in this article was an accurate representation of where we currently stand, with regards to accommodation for looked after children. It emphasised the mounting problem regarding the lack of placements. The investigation made several claims:

  • some local authorities routinely inviting private companies to compete for contracts through an online tendering process.
  • some children’s services placing personal details of children in online adverts connected to this bidding process, including sensitive information such as “previous sexual abuse and gang involvement”.
  • private companies taking over the market and charging councils more than £7,000 a week per child for residential placements.
  • children being accepted into homes that don’t have space – driven by profit.
  • children being sent to distant placements because of a lack of homes in the placing authority.
  • many children being constantly moved from one home to another, when they are seen as problematic or they are able to charge more for another child.

The Guardian article drew a comment from Nadim Zahawi, the Minister for Children and Families who was quoted as saying “it was completely unacceptable for local authorities to promote or be seen to seemingly auction children in care”.  Ann Coffey, the chairwoman of the All-party parliamentary group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, was also quoted as saying “children are being treated in a barbaric manner by being randomly auctioned out online to private companies. This chaotic bidding system is not how the care needs of vulnerable children should be met. It is a catastrophic failure.” A slightly more balanced assessment came from Antoinette Bramble, the chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board. She was quoted as saying “while many private providers did a good job, a minority were taking advantage of the system by charging disproportionately high fees to councils, which are often left with little choice when urgent action is needed to safeguard a child”.

At the same time as the Guardian article, the BBC news site featured a story regarding a study produced by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. This too suggested that the sharp rise in the number of children requiring local authority intervention was “pushing council children’s services in England into crisis”. Some of the stats by both the Guardian ad BBC are:

  • in the year preceding the report, almost 2.4 million people had contacted children’s services because they were worried about a child, a 78% increase since 2008.
  • serious investigations over concerns of significant harm had risen 159%, from just under 77,000 in 2008 to almost 200,000 in 2017/18.
  • the number of children taken into local authority care has risen by 24% in the last decade.
  • out-of-borough placements for children in care rose from 2,250 in 2012 to 3,680 in March 2017.

There are a number of reasons for these figures, the main ones being a rise in demand and a substantial drop in funding for children social services. There are very few local authority run children’s homes left  and we cannot recall every coming across an ‘other provisions’ (16 plus/semi-independent) that was run by a local authority. As the Guardian highlights, the government’s policy is, that where possible children should be placed in foster care. However, there is a huge problem with obtaining foster placements in many parts of the UK. These factors all mean that it comes as no surprise that private companies will prosper in the ‘marketplace’. High demand and a lack of supply means that that companies specialising in care, are able to raise prices. The Guardian also highlighted that low operating costs in the north-west and south-east of England had led to more privately-owned homes in these areas. This is almost certainly the reason why children are sent far and wide, which in many cases goes against statutory guidance.

At this point it may feel like private companies are the villain of the piece, particularly if you have read the Guardian article. However, in their defence they are providing a vital service and helping to plug an important gap in an imperfect system which has been creaking for some considerable time. We should also reiterate the words of Antoinette Bramble, and say that many private providers do a great job in caring for and safeguarding the children in their care. There will always be good, fair and bad providers. We in the safeguarding community have a responsibility to ensure that where we identify issues with a care provider, that we act, inform and escalate, so that action can be taken, and issues addressed. This ‘self-policing’ is particularly relevant when we interact with those placements that fall within the definition of ‘other provisions’, those non-regulated provisions commonly known as semi-independent accommodation for children of 16 and above.

Below we look at the key areas of safeguarding for residential placements. Whilst this relates to children’s homes regulated by Ofsted, the same ethos around safeguarding should be followed by non-regulated provision.  We will leave the last word to Nadim Zahawi who said “All decisions relating to a child’s care should be driven by what is best for the child, rather than what is the cheapest option”.   

Children’s Homes should offer a welcoming, supportive and nurturing environment. Essentially the home should strive to meet a child’s needs as provided by a good parent. A child should feel safe, free from harm, discrimination and bullying. The home must comply with relevant health and safety legislations but should not be ‘institutional’ in nature.

Children should have access to all shared communal areas. Any restriction of access should only be in place to safeguard individual children. A child should have their privacy and their own personal space. Within their bedroom, they should have a lockable cabinet or drawers to securely store personal possessions. Entry to a child’s bedroom should generally only be carried out with their permission.

Safeguarding Hub View: There will be occasions when staff should carry out a search of the room, even where the child refuses access. Obvious reasons are where staff suspect that an immediate search is necessary because they believe there is a risk to the child or another person, or there is a risk of damage to property. Unfortunately, we have seen and know of many occasions where staff take no action when children bring drugs into the home and use them in their room. We have visited homes where the overwhelming smell of cannabis has pretty much knocked us off our feet as we have entered. This has led to us challenging staff as to why a search of the room hasn’t been conducted to find and remove the drug. Some responses clearly highlight the dilemma that care home staff face when believing that drugs are being used on the premises. They are often unsure about their legal position in searching rooms. However, it is part of their safeguarding responsibility to act and it is also an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 for anyone concerned in the management of premises to knowingly permit or suffer, the smoking of cannabis.

The home should have a strict policy on how and when the internet is accessed. Staff should be aware of the various different ways a child can access the internet e.g. games console, tablets, phones etc. Whilst development should not be stifled by refusing access to the internet, staff should recognise that it can potentially pose a safeguarding risk, particularly in relation to child sexual and criminal exploitation. Periods that wi-fi is available should be sensible and controlled by staff. Access and use should be monitored where it is feasible to do so.

Security within the home should be to a high standard. The home should have lockable external doors and windows compatible with fire regulations. Access to the home should be monitored and controlled and staff should only grant access to visitors, where they can be satisfied that the visitor is not going to pose a risk of harm to the children and staff. The home can also restrict access or contact to the child by a parent/guardian where the staff believe it is necessary to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. This decision should not be taken lightly, and any pre-planned restriction should have been agreed with the placing authority. Where this happens without notice and in an emergency situation (e.g. a parent turns up drunk or under influence of drugs), the home must notify the placing authority within 24 hours. Children should not be able to give access to others without care home staff knowing who is within the accommodation. Some homes will have CCTV.  If this is the case then the home is required to have a written policy, in which they will need to set out how the CCTV supports safeguarding and is of benefit to those living and working in the home.

The home should be situated in an area where the children can be effectively safeguarded. The registered person has a responsibility to review the appropriateness and suitability of the location and premises of the home at least once a year. That review should identify risk and develop ways to mitigate any potential danger. Additionally, every 6 months the registered person should carry out a ‘quality of care’ self-review process, producing a report which should be submitted to Ofsted and any placing authority. The focus of the review is at the discretion of the registered person but should concentrate on any specific issues/problems that pose a high risk to the children at the time, e.g. CSE, drug dealing, missing. An action plan should be created where areas of risk are identified.

The Children’s Homes and Looked after Children (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2013, introduced changes to the Children’s Homes Regulations 2001. Regulation 31 places a legal requirement on Children's Home Manager’s to ensure that the home’s they manage are appropriately and suitably located. Essentially this regulation places an onus on the Care Home manager to conduct a yearly ‘Location Risk Assessment’ on their care home.

In conducting this risk assessment, some of the factors the manager is required to consider are:

  • whether the location of the home influences the potential for an already vulnerable child to be the victim of crime, such as being targeted for sexual exploitation.
  • whether there is a likelihood of children being placed in the home becoming drawn into gang crime or anti-social behavior.
  • the suitability of the local neighborhood as a location to care for children who may have already been victims of abuse and neglect.

In making their assessment, managers are directed to consult with services that have a statutory responsibility for safeguarding children within the area the home is located. Police are specifically named as one of these statutory agencies. The guidance states that the purpose of this consultation is ‘as far as reasonably practicable, to gather local intelligence on factors that may represent risks to children’. The guidance goes on to say that in carrying out the assessment, care providers will need to contact their local police force’s Head of Public Protection. A letter template for the manager to send to police is included within the guidance.

A children’s home should have ‘sufficient staff’. This means that the home is required to have enough suitably trained staff on duty to meet the needs of all children in the home. There also has to be someone on duty who can perform the management role. Whilst absenteeism through sickness or other emergencies are inevitable, the registered person must make every effort to ensure that there are always sufficient staff available, and continuity of care is not affected by both the number and quality of staff. Contingency plans should be in place to pre-empt situations where there could be a shortfall in staffing levels. This is particularly important when agency staff are used to supplement full time staff. External agency staff should have the mandatory qualifications and the necessary skills, before being employed in the home. No more than 50% of the staff on duty at any one time should be from an external agency.

The staffing standards also apply to situations where the home is asked by a LA to provide emergency accommodation. The requirement for ‘sufficient staff’ still applies and if the home cannot ensure they have the workforce in place, then they shouldn’t provide the placement. There should be good leadership and staff should have the experience, qualifications and ability to meet the needs of each child. This includes having the skill set to deal with safeguarding issues e.g. self-harm, child abuse, neglect, drugs/alcohol issues, mental health etc. There should be a plan detailing the management and staffing structure, the experience and qualifications of staff and any further training that is required. Staff should be proficient in safeguarding children and able to put in place practices that minimise potential risks to the child. They must also work and form partnerships with the child’s placing Social Worker and other relevant individuals, agencies and services connected to the individual child.

The responsible authority must ensure that the child is visited regularly. The person best placed to do this is their social worker. At the commencement of the placement the child should be visited within a week. Thereafter, the child must be visited at intervals of not more than 6 weeks in the first year. 6 weekly visits should continue thereafter unless the setting has been formally agreed as a permanent placement, intended to last until the child reaches 18. If this is the case, then visits can be extended to every 3 months. Whilst those are the regulated time limits, the frequency of visits should always be determined by the circumstances of the case. Just because a placement is going well doesn’t mean time periods can be extended and should be neglected. Visits should be more frequent where there is a specific issue or either the child or carer is under pressure.  Where a child or a provider reasonably requests a visit, then the responsible authority should ensure that one takes place.

Visits are important for several reasons. They can assess whether the child is happy, settled and progressing; but can also highlight safeguarding weaknesses, poor standards of care or where a provider is simply struggling to cope. It is for this reason that some visits should be unannounced, so that the social worker is able to judge the quality of care as it is happening, rather than a prepared ‘false’ presentation for the benefit of the visitor. This is particularly crucial for non-regulated provisions for young people where Ofsted have no right of inspection. A visit should always involve speaking to the child alone and where possible include observing their bedroom and other facilities.

Where the social worker has concerns about whether the placement is not providing adequate care or safeguarding, steps should be taken to review the child’s care and placement plans. Measures should be put in place to ensure that the issues identified during the visit are addressed. The child’s Independent Review Officer (IRO) should be informed.

The registered person must appoint an independent person to carry out visits to the home. This is so an assessment can be made as to whether the home has effective systems in place for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the children that reside there. The visitor must be independent (no conflict of interest), impartial, intrusive and have the necessary skills to form an impartial opinion of the quality of the home’s care.

The responsible authority also has a duty to appoint a person to be a child’s independent visitor, where it appears to them that it is in the child’s interest to do so. The criteria for assessing whether a child requires an independent visitor generally covers where a child is isolated and has limited or no contact with friends/family. However, there is a consideration which specifically relates to safeguarding. This is where the child is likely to engage in behaviour which will put him/her at risk because of peer pressure or forming inappropriate relationships with people who are significantly older. An appointment need not take place where a child decides that they don’t want a visitor and they are adjudged to be capable of making that decision. Part of the visitor’s role is to ensure that the child is adequately safeguarded.

The home’s management and staff should ensure that they proactively engage with the placing authority and all other agencies/people involved in the care/life of the child. The provider should seek to involve the placing authority whenever there is a significant concern about a child’s welfare. Where the home feels that either the placing authority or any other agency is not contributing fully to the child’s needs, they should take the initiative and challenge the authority/agency to engage and improve. Homes should also have a good working relationship with the local youth offending team and police, particularly those police teams that focus on neighbourhood policing, missing persons, gangs and CSE. Working in partnership is crucial in safeguarding the child.

The leadership of the home should ensure that they have systems and training in place so that staff can recognise, assess and respond to risk. There should be a strong safeguarding culture in the home.  Staff should have a good knowledge of the home’s child protection policies and be able to take immediate and effective action whenever there is a significant concern about a child’s welfare. This should include an awareness of risk areas, such as CSE, missing, trafficking, gangs/county lines, drugs, etc. Training should be current and recorded in the home’s workforce plan. Part of the home’s policy should include information and the procedures for ‘whistle blowing’. Staff must feel confident that they can report to the responsible or local authority any concern they may have that a child might be at risk within the home. The policy should reflect the principles set out in the Francis review 'Freedom to speak up' (a 2015 review into whistleblowing within the NHS).

The home should adopt a policy of continuous assessment of risk for each individual child, developing and putting in place tactics to safeguard the child. Where necessary the home should include partners in the management and reduction of risk. Interventions to minimise risk should be agreed with the child’s placing authority and documented in the placement plan. If the person responsible for a care home considers that the child is at risk of harm, or the child is persistently absent from the home without permission, or the home can no longer meet the child’s needs, then they should ask the LA to review the child’s care plan and assess whether the placement is suitable.

Staff should be able to assist a child in understanding what amounts to a risky situation(s) and provide advice and guidance which will help the child be aware of their own safety and how they can remain safe. This should include providing information on how they can access help, report abuse or any safeguarding concerns they have in confidence e.g. leaflets, websites, help lines. It is an expectation of staff that they have a broad range of skills and knowledge in order that they can assist a child in understanding key areas of risk - sexual health, drugs (including legal highs), mental health alcohol, tobacco etc.

The government defines bullying involving children as: “unwanted, aggressive behaviour among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behaviour is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems”. Ofsted defines bullying as: behaviour by an individual or group, repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group either physically or emotionally”.

The management and staff should understand and be alert to the signs of bullying. This should include the worrying trend of cyber-bullying. Signs of bullying can include:

  • unexplainable injuries
  • lost or broken possessions
  • low self-esteem
  • loss of friends, withdrawing from social situations
  • refusal to talk about what is wrong
  • changes in eating habits, eating disorders
  • change in attitude or behaviour
  • problems sleeping; frequent nightmares, bed wetting
  • frequent headaches, stomach aches, feeling sick or feigning sickness
  • truanting or missing episodes
  • behaviour problems at school, a decline in schoolwork and not wanting to go to school
  • self-destructive behaviour; self-harm, suicidal behaviours

The registered person has specific responsibilities to prepare and implement a safeguarding policy with clear procedures for dealing with child protection issues. The home should have separate policies for specific areas of safeguarding e.g. missing, CSE, abuse etc. Policies should be regularly reviewed and updated. All staff should be familiar with safeguarding policies and how to report any concerns they identify.

Thanks for reading.

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