The number of younger children in secure units is set to rise,
but many have not even committed a crime. Dominique Hammond reports
on the findings of new research
S ecure accommodation is increasingly “silting up” with younger
children serving short sentences leaving their older counterparts
“to the mercy of the prison system”, according to a book published
‘Vulnerable Inside: Children in Secure and Penal Settings’ is
based on 12 months’ research, including extensive interviews
with the staff of secure units, allied professionals and the
The number of young people held in secure accommodation grew
from 238 in 1992 to 377 last year. With government plans to add 12-
to 14-year-old criminals to the 15- and 16- year-olds already sent
to these institutions, the number is set to rise.
But not all children who find themselves deprived of their
liberty are there because they are on remand or have committed a
crime. Over the 10-year period a fairly constant number (between 63
and 91), have found themselves sent to these units for their own,
rather than the public’s, safety.
These children are sent as a last resort via the family
proceedings court. They are highly vulnerable, often involved in
prostitution and drug abuse and are likely to self-harm or be
suicidal. Section 25 of the Children Act 1989 provides that they
may be confined if they are persistent runaways who are likely to
suffer serious harm when they abscond or cannot be kept safely in
any other accommodation. Children from the age of 13 can be
confined for up to three months on a first application made by the
local authority and up to six months in further applications.
The book’s author, Barry Goldson, senior lecturer at the
department of sociology, social policy and social work studies at
Liverpool University, asked staff whether they felt it was
legitimate to lock up children for welfare purposes. Of 20 staff
responding, 11 believed it was “entirely legitimate” while nine
thought it “partially legitimate”. Staff emphasised the crisis
conditions under which children are admitted and the need to
protect them, with many believing that secure accommodation was the
only way to ensure their safety.
But those in the “partially legitimate” group raised a number of
concerns. These included the fact that other options were not
always explored, that children were sometimes held for too long,
that it was sometimes more about social services “covering their
backs” than it being the best option for the child, and that,
beyond the immediate usefulness of keeping the child safe, the
benefits were questionable.
These concerns also worry Goldson. “It can be a question of life
and death and for a small number of children restricting their
liberty for a while is necessary,” he said.
“However, that should be done for the shortest necessary time
and rigorous legal safeguards need to be in place. I would question
the rigour of some of those safeguards.”
Goldson’s problems with the safeguards begin with the
hearings for secure accommodation orders. All children are
appointed an independent guardian, who is there to ensure that the
child’s voice is heard. But Goldson’s research reveals
that guardians are given so little notice of proceedings (in some
cases less than an hour), that they do not have enough time to
acquaint themselves with the details.
“Some of the guardians were saying that the first time they see
the child is on the day of the application,” he says. “They are
having to take cases on face value, which makes it hard for them to
fulfil their function as the counterweight representing the
interests of the child.”
Goldson acknowledges that in a crisis this may be unavoidable
but says a way round it would be for the courts to make short first
orders, rather than the three-month orders that are made now. “This
would allow guardians to look at the complexities of the case, to
interview the child in detail and then go back to the court,” he
Goldson found that lack of consultation with children over what
was happening to them was common. In just over half the cases they
were unaware of the arrangements that had been made for them.
Goldson notes that this sits uncomfortably with the UN Convention
on the Rights of the Child, which provides for the child’s
right to have their views taken into account. Twelve of the 15
children interviewed disagreed with their secure accommodation
order and several felt they had been deceived by their social
worker. This made them doubt that their confinement was for their
benefit and they generally saw the centres as places of punishment
rather than safety.
The Children Act requires regular reviews of the cases of all
children held in secure accommodation. But even if the review panel
decides it is no longer necessary to hold the child, there is no
obligation on the placing authority to follow its
One panel member told Goldson: “I have known situations where
local authorities have overturned the unanimous decision of the
Goldson’s response is that there is little point in having
an independent review system without authority. He wants local
authorities to be obliged to follow their advice.
He also wants fewer children to end up in the units in the first
place. “These children have been in the care system for years,” he
says. “There is always the argument that resources are limited but
the resources seem to be found when it comes to crisis point.
“It is a question of identifying and responding to their needs
earlier within the open system of care.”
Goldson acknowledges the pressures on social services
departments and says it would be too easy to blame social workers
for using the lock-up option rather than finding more imaginative
ways of helping these children.
“It’s not that they aren’t looking but rather that
there has been an enormous investment of money in locking up
younger and younger children at precisely the same time that social
services departments have had their budgets cut,” he says.
“The real problem is the extension of the custodial powers of
courts to embrace 12- to 14-year-olds. Those children can’t
go to prison so places have to be provided for them in secure
accommodation. What were once secure children’s homes are
being transformed into more orthodox youth correctional resources.
The welfare and justice systems have collided and the justice
jurisdiction is in ascendancy.”
Vulnerable Inside: Children in Secure and Penal
Settings, Children’s Society, 2002.
Children tell of dismay at
The book highlights the alarm of the children on arrival at the
institutions. One girl tells Goldson: “When I got to this place and
got out of the car I first saw the fence and then I really realised
they’d brought me to a secure unit. I just walked in quietly
and they searched me. I was very, very upset and depressed. I was
shocked and frightened.” Some of the children, once settled, see
their placement as beneficial but others strongly feel that being
locked up is an injustice. “They are keeping me in here for three
months and I don’t think it is right to be locked up. I have
not broken the law – I have just run away and I am now locked up,”
says another girl.
Lives of agony and depression
Goldson interviewed 15 children from six secure units – almost a
quarter of the children locked up in England and Wales through the
welfare system. Twelve were girls and three were boys and ages
ranged from 12 to 16. Eleven had been living in children’s
homes, three had lived with foster parents and one at a residential
school. Eleven were receiving no education when admitted (they were
either excluded or not attending) while the others were in “special
education”. Almost all spoke of depression, self-harm and suicidal
thoughts. Five had received formal psychiatric treatment. Ten
reported serious alcohol problems and seven had drug problems.