Safeguarding within Children’s Homes

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”.   

Thanks for reading.

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