An at-risk 15-year-old boy involved in a “range” of criminal activities was left “free to abscond” as a result of the national shortage of secure accommodation placements, a judge has said.
The boy, named as M, went missing from his grandmother’s home around 28 August, between two court dates intended to resolve the issue of his living arrangements and long-term support. At the time he was already serving a community sentence for a criminal offence.
At a hearing at Barnet family court last week, Judge Rowe said that, had a secure placement been available for the boy at a hearing on 25 August and the court had made an order, he “would not have been free to abscond, he would not have been in breach of his community sentence and most importantly he would have been safe”.
This is the latest in a series of cases in which local authorities – in this instance, Haringey council – have been unable to source secure accommodation for vulnerable children. Sir James Munby, president of the family division of the High Court, has described the situation as an “outrage”.
Echoing the judge in another case, heard in late August, Rowe said that a copy of the judgment would be sent to the education secretary Justine Greening in order to highlight the ongoing problems.
The boy had been subject to an interim care order since June 2017, following a period in which he was “involved in a range of criminal activities, was increasingly beyond the control of his family, and during which he had absconded from various family placements”, Judge Rowe said.
Haringey’s plan was to have the boy assessed by a child and adolescent psychiatrist to help the courts plan a longer-term placement and support, the judge added.
After absconding from one placement by 16 June, soon after receiving a community sentence, the boy was found and held on remand regarding another criminal matter, for which in August he received another similar sentence. The latter required him to live at his grandmother’s home, subject to a curfew enforced via an electronic tag – an arrangement that Haringey council viewed as “wholly unsuitable”.
In the meantime, the local authority had already sought a hearing – arranged for 25 August – where it planned to pursue a secure accommodation order. But by the time of the hearing, it had been unable to source a suitable placement.
“On 25 August 2017 HHJ Karp expressed her real concern at the lack of a secure placement for M, and about the unsuitability of the family placement,” Judge Rowe said. Because of her fears, Judge Karp transferred the case for a public hearing on 1 September, but by then the boy had already absconded – and his tag’s lack of GPS functionality meant that he remained at large.
At the 1 September hearing, Judge Rowe heard that Haringey had sent the boy’s referral to more than 75 residential providers “throughout England, Scotland and Wales”.
“M’s social worker told me, as was apparent from the search, that there is currently a shortage of beds nationwide and that there is currently (or was then) a waiting list of 23 children waiting for a secure placement,” the judge said. “All parties accepted that the local authority simply could not have done any more to find a placement.”
Since then, Haringey did manage to find a placement suitable for the boy. But as he remained at large, and the place could only be held for a week, by the time of last week’s hearing it seemed unlikely he would be able to take it up.
A Haringey council spokesperson said: “As the court judgement makes clear, this is a complex case and finding a suitable placement for the child has proved challenging. We are continuing to work with all involved to try to find the best outcome.”
Community Care has also asked Haringey council for an update on M’s circumstances – at the time of writing it was unclear whether he had been found.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “The safety and wellbeing of children in care is paramount and the right accommodation must be in place to meet their needs.
“Local authorities are responsible for making sure places are available and we are supporting them to reach the best possible outcomes for these vulnerable children.”