Vacancies threaten future of secure children’s homes

The viability of secure children’s homes is in doubt as the Youth Justice Board and councils desert them in favour of other options, writes Maria Ahmed

Councils are increasingly unable to sustain the costs of running secure children’s homes because of a lack of referrals, professionals have warned.

High vacancy rates in many homes have caused financial losses, and since 2003 seven homes have closed. There are fears that others may follow.

According to the Secure Accommodation Network (SAN), representing all 24 homes in England and Wales, there are about 40 vacancies on any one day, out of 400 places.

In response to the concerns, the Department for Education and Skills carried out a survey, published last week, to examine why children were not being placed in homes.

Secure homes receive referrals from two sources: young offenders from the Youth Justice Board and welfare referrals for children at risk of harm and absconding from councils, including those that run homes, under section 25 of the Children Act 1989.

The number of YJB referrals have fallen due to the increasing use of secure training centres, where placements are cheaper. Currently, just 15 out of the 24 homes have contracts with the YJB, placing an increasing premium on welfare referrals.

Thornbury House secure unit in Oxfordshire closed in 2004 after its contract with the YJB came to an end when secure training centres opened in the region.

The council said it was a “financial risk” to keep the unit open due to uncertainty over whether welfare beds would generate adequate funding to sustain it.

But government figures show annual section 25 referrals to homes have declined from between 65 and 100 from 1995 to 2000 to between 35 to 40 from 2001 to 2005.

Nottinghamshire Council social services director David Pearson estimated that from April to September 2005 there were 144 vacant bed days for the six welfare places at Clayfields secure home, resulting in 92,472 in lost income, in a council committee report last November.

The DfES survey revealed that councils were reluctant to make referrals due to “low expectations” of homes, choosing alternatives such as intensive fostering.

It found that while half of placements had helped to change children’s risk-taking behaviour, the other half had “poor” outcomes, and called for radical changes to the secure accommodation system.

According to Mary Graham, chair of SAN, and manager of Atkinson unit in Devon, many homes have suffered from a lack of investment.

“Several units now require major investment that councils cannot, and will not, provide for services many only use infrequently,” she says.

Graham estimates that most councils only refer one or two children to their own homes a year, and have to rely on “unpredictable” spot-purchasing from other councils and Youth Justice Board referrals to fill the rest of the beds.

She says: “Councils faced with high vacancies must get taxpayers to pay for services that are mainly used by children outside of the local area.”

Jon Banwell, manager of Aldine house secure children’s home in Sheffield, says closures of homes are being decided at a local level “without regard” to the national need.

“If this continues, parts of England and Wales will be without secure children’s homes. This means that when a young person requires a placement it could be many miles away from their home,” he warns.

SAN is calling for a national strategy to ensure that all secure provision is more effectively co-ordinated. As part of this, Graham also wants to see better regulation of services that are being used instead of homes.

“In some services no court scrutinises the plans to decide whether or not the restrictions on children are needed or appropriate,” she says.

John Kemmis, chief executive of looked-after children’s charity Voice, is keen to see more investment in developing open units alongside secure homes to improve outcomes.

He predicts that while there will always be a limited need for homes for the most difficult children, other services are also necessary.

“If we don’t need to lock children up on welfare grounds because alternatives can be found that’s a good thing,” he says.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.