Secure care for welfare reasons in England and Ireland

Henri Giller reviews research that examines current thinking on the use of secure care in child welfare cases in England and Ireland

The use of secure accommodation in children’s homes in child welfare cases has long been contentious.(1) Two studies, independently commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills in England(2) and the Special Residential Services Board in the Irish Republic,(3) reach similar conclusions on the use of such facilities and their likely future role and function.

The English study arose from a context of falling demand for welfare beds in secure settings and a need to find out why this was. The Irish study was provoked by an impending change in the law revising the admission criteria and entry procedures for special care. There was concern as to whether the applicants for these services, whose entry criteria are governed by case law, would meet the revised criteria.

The legal framework to access secure care for welfare cases differs somewhat between the jurisdictions. In England, section 25 of the Children Act 1989 governs the arrangements. It allows a local authority to apply to the courts for an order to keep a looked-after child in secure accommodation where:

● They are aged 13-17 on admission (or, with the approval of the secretary of state, 10-13), have a history of absconding and are likely to abscond from any other type of accommodation.
● If they abscond they are likely to suffer significant harm.
● Or if kept in any other type of accommodation they are likely to injure themselves or others.

An order made by a court lasts initially for three months, but the local authority can apply for it to be renewed every six months.

In Ireland, part 3 of the Children Act 2001 will soon introduce special care orders. Applications will be made by the Health Service Executive (child care functions being within the health service infrastructure), but only after a family welfare
conference endorses the move. The eligibility criteria will be similar to those in England, where the executive must show that the young person:

● Is 11-17 on admission.
● Demonstrates behaviour that poses a real and substantial risk to their safety, development or welfare or the safety of others.
● Has a history of impaired socialisation and impulse control or an established history of absconding.
● Is likely to cause self-injury or injury to others if placed in any other form of care.
● Would not have their needs met in a less secure environment.

In considering these criteria, the court should obtain the views of the Special Residential Services Board (an independent multi-disciplinary intermediary body). An initial order lasts between three and six months.

Despite these contextual differences, both jurisdictions share a common philosophy as to the purpose and focus of secure care in welfare cases. Restricting a child’s liberty should be limited. It should be a specialist provision which responds positively to a young person’s needs rather than a pragmatic response to a crisis. Provision should be integrated with other  services and offer the least restrictive caring environment to meet the child’s needs.

Both studies found that the criteria for accessing secure care were used correctly and internal procedures were in place to ensure that authorities controlled admissions. Admission criteria were seen as sound. In neither jurisdiction did there appear to be significant unmet demand for secure care beyond existing criteria.

There were significant gender imbalances in admissions, with girls substantially outnumbering boys entering secure facilities. The implication for both jurisdictions was that young men are more likely to access secure accommodation through the criminal justice system than the welfare route.

Time limits on the use of secure interventions in welfare cases may jeopardise the triple delivery objectives of the service – containment, assessment and therapy. This can result in social workers having unrealistic expectations as to what secure care can achieve for a young person. Despite the intention to ensure secure care has specialist and therapeutic functions, significant constraints were found in service delivery. This was found particularly in relation to meeting mental health needs, where both jurisdictions identified shortfalls in psychiatric and psychological services.

The quantity and quality of non-secure, intensive, specialist services that may be used as alternative provision to secure care have improved in both jurisdictions in the recent past and continues to do so. This development has contributed to sustaining secure care in welfare cases as a residual service. Representatives of both jurisdictions acknowledged that
there is a legitimate and continuing need for secure care in welfare cases. However, this should be within an expanding network of community based services which work with children and families.

For both jurisdictions the key message from the research is that more needs to be done to ensure integration of secure care services – both at the point of “step-down” from secure into community support and at “step-up” to secure provision, where community support and intervention are unable to meet need. 
HENRI GILLER is managing director of Social Information Systems, an independent research and consultancy organisation with 25 years’ experience of evaluation and policy development in social care.

The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected
training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

This article looks at the findings from two research evaluations of the use of secure care in welfare cases in England and Ireland. The findings from the research are remarkably similar despite the differing context of the development of secure care services.

(1) R Bullock, M Little, S Millham, Secure Treatment Outcomes: The Care Careers of Very Difficult Adolescents, Ashgate, 1998
(2) J Held, The Use by Local Authorities of Secure Children’s Homes, DfES, 2006
(3) H Giller, M Brierley, Review of Admission Criteria and Processes for Special Care, Special Residential Services Board, 2005


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