Children needing secure accommodation is far greater than the places available

The High Court is using special powers to send increasing numbers of vulnerable young people to unregulated settings, an evidence review has found.

25/02/22

Children needing secure accommodation is far greater than the places available

The review, published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, concludes that the numbers of children needing secure accommodation is far greater than the number of places available. In 2020, it says, the Youth Advocacy Service reported that only half the children referred found a place.

The children most likely to be sent to live in unregulated settings – which include caravans and holiday parks – are those with particularly complex needs who do not meet criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act. They are seen as too challenging to be sent to a secure children’s home.

The report describes the increase in the High Court’s use of special powers to send children to unregulated settings as ‘breathtaking’ and adds: “This is a major cause for concern given that we do not know where these children are placed, what restrictions are placed on their liberty, or what their outcomes are.”

“Something is clearly not working. We need an urgent rethink about how we improve the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society, and to be clear about the purpose of depriving young people of their liberty,” the review says.

Those who do find places in secure settings, children’s homes or semi-independent accommodation are often sent to live far from home. Here too the data are limited, but the report says that the most detailed official statistics show that children are placed on average 24 miles from home and that more than a third (36%) were living more than 50 miles away.

The largest group of children deprived of their liberty are living in the youth justice secure estate. The next largest group of children deprived of their liberty are those detained under the 1983 Mental Health Act. A smaller number of children are detained in secure children’s homes.

The review concludes that the reasons for depriving a child of liberty are too often unclear in cases of youth custody: the intention to punish is explicit but it is not clear how other aims – specifically rehabilitation and reducing further offending – are to be met.

Where children are deprived of their liberty for welfare reasons, there is often confusion among professionals about the purpose of such placements and what can be achieved by it. “At the most basic level, secure children’s; homes were thought to provide an opportunity to ‘hold’ children and to keep them (temporarily) safe. There was less consensus, however, about the purpose and ability of secure children’s homes to address the underlying needs behind a child’s admission.”

“Some felt that the placement should support the identification of a child’s needs, and to support them to engage in more in-depth treatments or interventions in a stable setting. In particular, the relatively short amount of time children spent in secure children’s homes has led some to question the ability of a secure placement to support any meaningful change for the child.”

The review also points to ‘considerable professional anxiety’ in children’s services in responding to complex needs. “This can lead to decisions being made at points of crisis, and a preoccupation with safety through secure placement and relocation, at the expense of approaches that place children’s voices and well-being at the centre, and address the underlying risks children face in the community from exploitation.”

This is exacerbated by the lack of community-based responses such as “specialist foster placements and residential children’s homes, and integration with other services especially community mental health that could support professionals to better manage risk in the community.”

What Do We Know About Children Deprived of Their Liberty? An Evidence Review by Alice Roe of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory: https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/children-and-young-people-deprived-of-their-liberty-england-and-wales

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