Protecting vulnerable girls at Clare Lodge secure centre

Clare Lodge (pics by PhilipReeson)

A key facility for vulnerable girls is under the threat of closure despite its vital contribution, finds Camilla Pemberton

With its barbed wire-topped walls, swivelling CCTV cameras and state of the art fingerprint sensors on every door, Clare Lodge is more secure than many adult prisons.

But unlike a prison or secure children’s home – where 11-year-olds Jon Venables and Robert Thompson spent eight years after being convicted of murdering toddler James Bulger – no one at Clare Lodge is serving a custodial sentence. All the girls here are locked up because they need protecting.

For these are young women so vulnerable, according to unit manager Michael Nerini (pictured), that they will go to extraordinary lengths to harm themselves.

Almost every household item is dangerous and prohibited. In the past girls have swallowed sponges, forced batteries down their throats and cut themselves with blades from pencil sharpeners in desperate attempts to erase years of trauma and abuse.

The only all-female secure unit of its kind in the country, Clare Lodge provides a vital lifeline to some of the country’s most troubled and traumatised young women. About two-thirds of the girls referred have been sexually exploited, by organised gangs or men they once trusted. Most have also been physically or sexually abused in early childhood.

Nerini estimates that 20-25% of girls “would make a serious suicide attempt” if they escaped, or were removed, before Clare Lodge’s expert team considered them ready. On average this is after eight months of intensive work, including therapy and teaching, delivered in partnership with a range of agencies, like St Andrews Partnership, a leading adolescent mental health trust.

After a placement most girls do see a vast improvement in their literacy and numeracy skills, and massive changes in their well-being, according to staff. Some girls excel and many are moved into mainstream placements. For others, simply surviving a day without self-harming or feeling suicidal is a huge achievement.

Yet despite its efficacy, Clare Lodge, which relies on local authority funding, could fall victim to budget cuts. For the first time in its six-year history, some of the home’s 16 beds are now empty. Each bed costs a substantial £5,503 a week, but this was never a problem in the past, Nerini says. Before October’s comprehensive spending review (CSR), there were two or three enquiries a week.

Since then, there have been just six in total. “One was for a boy, three were not progressed – in at least two cases due to an unwillingness to fund – and two young women were placed. We have had no enquiries since December,” Nerini admits.

Within weeks of the CSR, eight girls were swiftly removed from the home by their councils. One, moved mid-placement, locked herself in her foster carers’ bathroom just days later and slit her wrists. After a stay in hospital, she was returned to the unit to complete her treatment.

Clare Lodge does not look or feel like a typical children’s home. Every room is a bland beige or grey, but for a few colourful drawings, and full of chunky regulation furniture, carefully designed to eliminate sharp edges and ligature points. But for most of its 10-17-year-old residents, this gated, high security unit is the safest and most nurturing community they have ever known. For some, it is the closest to a functioning family they will ever experience.

“The downturn in referrals is an unintended consequence of government policy and there is a danger we will be swept away in the shrinkage of social services generally”, Nerini says.

“After 38 years in social care, I am still shocked by the case files of the young people we work with. I hate to think what might happen to them if we were to disappear.”

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