Secure Children’s Homes – sometimes the only option

A Safeguarding Hub – 20-minute read

 Last week, Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England published a report looking at the hundreds of children who are detained in institutions across the country. In the first report of its kind, the Commissioner’s office has gathered data on those children detained and living in secure children’s homes, youth justice settings, mental health wards and other residential placements.

The report, Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up, examines why so many children are locked up, where they are accommodated, the cost of keeping them, whether their complex needs are always catered for within the various establishments and whether alternative decision making may have prevented their deprivation of liberty.

In the various media reports that accompanied the publication of the report, Mrs Longfield was critical of the current system relating to children deprived of their liberty, claiming that there are hundreds of children in England “growing up behind closed doors, locked away for their own safety or the safety of others”. For us, the most shocking part of the Commissioners report is that there appears to be no single authority or organisation that has oversight or grip of the system. In effect the “system” appears is in disarray.

One of the issues highlighted in the report was the problems that face local authorities finding suitable secure accommodation. This has recently drawn adverse comment from the judiciary who have criticised the fact that when beds are unavailable, some local authorities have instead been applying for deprivation of liberty authorisations, and then placing children in alternate unsuitable non-approved settings. This is detrimental to the child and potentially places that child at risk, either from themselves or others. The phrase ‘quasi-secure’ homes has been used by a senior Judge to describe this situation, criticising the fact that family courts are frequently asked to approve the accommodation of children, but have no means of checking or auditing the suitability of that accommodation.

At the same time that the Commissioner released her report, the United Nations raised concerns over the UK’s record on dealing and investigating the sexual abuse of children in detention. The committee at the UN relied on evidence from our own Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) looking at the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children in detention between 2009 to 2017, in accommodation which included young offender facilities, secure training centres and secure children’s homes.

The Local Government Association (LGA) responded to the Commissioner’s report by pointing out that there had been a “significant rises in demand for urgent child protection work and a £3.1 billion funding gap facing children’s services by 2025”. We believe that LGA Chair, Cllr Antoinette Bramble was honest in her assessment, describing the lack of funding as a reason why local authorities were struggling to put in place early interventions and support for children before their issues escalate and become more complex. The Councillor called on the government to address the shortfall in their forthcoming Spending Review.

For those that work in secure children’s homes, the release of these two reports may well have been viewed as unfair finger pointing, a kick in the teeth and potentially a blow to morale. These news pieces may well have prompted a degree of irritation, if not anger. We think it is important to acknowledge that most of the managers and staff working in these homes are doing their absolute best when dealing with extremely challenging children with very complex needs. It is also important to recognise that the Commissioner’s report is not a criticism of individual homes, but focuses on the overall system and processes across all forms of children’s secure accommodation. In fact, within the report, the Commissioner acknowledges that “many children in these settings are likely being well cared for”.

It is a welcome document because it throws light on inconsistencies and failings that currently exist which include:

  • a lack of a data and how it is gathered (on those children in the system).
  • differing ways children can be detained and enter the system, with no single point of access.
  • differing ‘overseeing’ bodies – Ministry of Justice, Department for Education, NHS England and Local Authorities.
  • the appropriateness of the settings.
  • legal confusion.

The Commissioner makes it clear that this lack of transparency means that there are children in the system who are ‘invisible’. There is no doubt that secure accommodation is needed for the relatively small number of cases where it is the only option left to protect a child from significant harm. However, we now know that changes are needed to make processes and system fit for purpose – that is putting child’s welfare at the forefront, from the initial legal process, right through to discharge from the home and the care package thereafter.

The Commissioner’s report, a summary of the main findings and recommendations can be found on the Commissioners webpage.

Here is our brief guide to Secure Children’s Homes (primarily for children placed on welfare grounds).

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