Legal change likely to increase looked-after child caseloads

With just months to go before children remanded in custody are given looked-after status, Judy Cooper finds that caseloads are likely to rise and there is still much uncertainty on key issus

Photo: Rex Features

Social workers could soon see their looked-after child caseloads increase as the law on children remanded in custody is about to radically change.

Solicitor Ed Mitchell edits Social Care Law Today and is the author of the Inform guide to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which will herald the changes. He says the Act creates two new entry points to looked-after child status.

“First, any child in youth detention accommodation would be a looked-after child,” he says. “The Bill also repeals the Criminal Justice Act 1948 provisions on prison remands for 17 year olds. Instead, remands for 17 year olds would be to either local authority accommodation or youth detention accommodation. In either case, the children would become looked-after children.” 

Rising caseloads

The impact on councils could be huge. “Once the Act is in force, local authorities are likely to see their looked-after child caseloads expand to include older children. These might be more resistant to input than children who have gained looked-after status through other routes. Following on from that, local authorities are likely to see their leaving care caseloads increasing as many members of this new group of looked-after children will also qualify for leaving care services,” he says.

It is unclear exactly when the changes will come into force, but the government has indicated it will be before the end of the year. To facilitate the move, in 2013 the cost of custodial remand in England and Wales will pass from the Youth Justice Board to local authorities.

To cash-strapped councils the changes may sound daunting. Pam Hibbert, chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, says the aim is to encourage local authorities to create alternatives to bail and find new ways of diverting children from the criminal justice system.

Unresolved issues

Much of the detail is yet to be agreed upon, however. Councils, uncertain of the impact on their resources, want to see a number of key issues resolved. These include: how assessments will be carried out; how funding will be devolved; how councils will be charged for the cost of remand placements and the threshold for young people gaining rights as care leavers. Currently, if a 16 or 17-year old were to remain in custodial remand for more than 13 weeks they would gain leaving care entitlements, including supported housing, when they reach 18.

Ian Keating, a senior adviser at the Local Government Association, says negotiations between local authorities and the Ministry of Justice are ongoing, with no firm answers yet. “We’ve had no feedback yet from the government on any of our concerns, nor any discussions about the devolution of central funding to cover the costs of custodial remand,” he says.

Calculating costs

Meanwhile, the Youth Justice Board and Department for Education are working on the plan’s ‘final stages’, with guidance expected during the planned period of consultation this autumn. While the board wants to retain control over where children will be placed on remand, councils are understandably wary. Out-of-area placements, for example, are more expensive and logistically challenging for social workers and independent reviewing officers.

Councils are still calculating the costs of the new duty. Bristol predicts the move will increase the number of children in its care by around 40 per year, while Somerset estimates the cost of maintaining the status quo, in terms of remand placements, at between £120,000 to £150,000.

Positive steps

According to Alex Chard, an independent consultant working in children’s services and youth justice, some local authorities view the change as a positive step – a chance to combine youth justice and children’s social care budgets to try something different. Some are considering increasing secure fostering arrangements or intensive supervision and surveillance options, but are so far struggling to recruit highly trained, specialist foster carers, he says.

The cost of a therapeutic residential placement is still far more expensive than custody, he points out. A local authority secure children’s home costs approximately £4,000 per week, while a therapeutic children’s home costs around £2,500 and a young offender institution about £1,250. Councils will therefore need firm details of the government’s plans before they can determine the true financial incentive of keeping children out of custody, Chard says.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, says one option would be to charge councils the same price for beds in different custodial settings. “So, in effect, a bed in a secure children’s home would cost the same to a council as a bed in a young offender institution. This would eliminate the incentive to overlook small therapeutic but expensive secure homes to place children in huge, cheaper prison warehouses,” she says.

‘Too many unknowns’

But the costs of placements could be nothing compared to the cost of leaving care entitlements, Chard warns, while Dean Woodward, assistant director of Lambeth specialist youth services, has highlighted a perverse incentive that might be created for teenagers – to offend in order to acquire independent supported accommodation when they reach 18.

The numerous unanswered questions make it virtually impossible to predict whether the move will be successful, Crook admits. “There are many obstacles to overcome,” she says. “However, we have an opportunity to reduce the number of children remanded in custody, and better look after the ones leaving custody so I hope the YJB and the Ministry of Justice listen to practitioners and experts to make a good plan into a great success.”

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Inform subscribers:  Guide to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012

All young offenders ‘should be given looked-after status’

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