Secure children’s homes are in decline. In the past five years their number has dwindled from 31 to just 19 (18 are in England and one in Wales). Roy Walker, the newly-appointed chair of the Secure Accommodation Network, which represents the homes, is understandably worried that an area of social work that “achieves a great deal” but is “misunderstood” will continue to suffer losses.
Walker believes the reasons for the closures are financially and politically driven. Most referrals are young offenders from the Youth Justice Board and the rest are welfare referrals for children at risk of harm and absconding from councils under section 25 of the Children Act 1989. The number of YJB referrals has fallen due to the increasing use of secure training centres, where placements are cheaper. A “variety of issues” lies behind the fall in welfare referrals, including a tendency to place more children in the community near their homes, Walker says.
Secure children’s homes are currently negotiating contracts with the YJB for 2009, and Walker predicts there will be a further drop in beds purchased. This, coupled with a continuing fall in the use of welfare beds, does not bode well for the future. With homes running an average of 30 vacancies a day, councils, which run all except two homes, are left to ask whether they can afford to keep them open.
Walker, who has been manager of Sutton Place Safe Centre secure children’s home in Hull for 15 years, says local politics, as much as financial concerns, can influence whether a home is closed. “The debate about young offenders and youth crime is not an area that generates positive thinking – there are real anxieties,” he says.
Under threat, the remaining homes, which provide about 350 places, must raise their profile, Walker says. “I want to campaign for this area of social work and do everything I can to show that we bring extra value by providing young people with high levels of support. We are different from secure training centres and young offender institutions.”
Children are vulnerable
The difference, according to Walker, can be starkly highlighted by pointing out that no child has died in a secure children’s home – compared with 30 in young offender institutions and secure training centres since 1990. In 2002, Joseph Scholes, a vulnerable 15-year-old, hung himself at Stoke Heath YOI, despite recommendations from the local youth offending team that he should serve his sentence in a secure children’s home. Campaigners have argued a place in a home could have saved his life.
Walker says: “Secure children’s homes are far smaller than YOIs and have high levels of staff. We have the ability to develop not just a working relationship with a young person but to get to know them. Problems can be spotted more easily. I have the greatest respect for prison officers working with young people but how can they get to know them when they are dealing with so many?
“Young people going to YOIs have to show they are tough – it’s hard for them to have a quiet word or cry very easily. In secure children’s homes I believe young people can deal with emotions far more easily as staff are around to see when they are having a bad day.”
Ahead of the government’s soon to be published youth crime action plan, Walker argues that welfare-oriented provision such as secure children’s homes must not be ignored. “There must be a range of options for young people sentenced to custody and homes are best placed to deal with some of the most difficult and damaged children,” he says.
Despite daily headlines about guns, gangs and knives, the government must avoid a “knee-jerk reaction to children out of control” and look at the causes of youth offending, Walker says.
“I think this government has real dilemmas in the run-up to a general election as they won’t want to appear soft on youth crime. But what happened to the talk of being tough on the causes of crime? Youth crime cannot be seen in isolation from the wider issues. Offending is just a small part of young people’s whole life story.”
The government’s plan must also address the resettlement of young offenders leaving secure care, Walker argues. A survey of 100 cases of young people leaving secure children’s homes conducted by Walker found one-third had no education plan in place, and one in seven had no accommodation to go to. Many went on to reoffend (see Case Study, facing page).
He believes secure children’s homes are “unfairly blamed” when social services and other agencies fail to plan effectively for a child’s release. “Secure care can make enormous strides with young people but if they aren’t given the support they require when they leave how can the unit be blamed when they get back into trouble? When a child leaves a secure environment and does not know where they are going to live, how can you put structure around them for their needs? You can’t just say ‘go down the motorway, someone will ring you up and tell you where to go’.”
Walker finds it “hugely frustrating” that some social services departments and other agencies are not prioritising children in secure care. “I know there are pressures, but if people are spending on average £550 a night for a placement there must be a degree of priority. I want to weep at the lack of good child care planning by a whole range of agencies including social care, education and health. I sometimes wonder if children in secure care matter a little less,” he says.
Walker, a qualified social worker who received an OBE for services to children in 2003, believes the welfare perspective on youth crime must be given greater recognition. But with the rise of a more punitive culture under Labour over the past 10 years, he questions whether the government is listening.
“I often get asked to travel down to London and give my views on policy, and I find myself staggering around thinking I am lost,” he jokes, before pausing for reflection. “Being asked is a good thing, but I wonder in future how much influence I will really have.”
● The Secure Accommodation Network:
● For more on Joseph Scholes
This article is published in the 26 June issue of Commuity Care magazine under the headlline Walker’s Welfare Woes