“It feels like you could film an episode of a student sitcom in here,” I say to Pam Robinson, regional manager for Allen House, a new residential home for children at risk of sexual exploitation that became operational this week.
Allen House – or ‘A Safe Place To Live’ as it is called by St. Christopher’s, the charity that owns and runs it – certainly has a relaxed student vibe. Set in a sleepy, leafy street in London, the tall home has plenty of rooms spread across what feels like hundreds of stairs.
Individual and homely
Of its five spacious, single rooms, the majority look out on the back garden, where someone is tending to a vegetable patch. The others look out on the quiet street the home sits on, which a car trundles down occasionally.
There’s a large communal area, a couple of quiet breakout spaces, a large kitchen, a dining area, a computer room. Probably the only thing that distinguishes it from any other large London town house is the staff room, where computers and video monitors are an under-the-staircase reminder that this isn’t a conventional home.
“Each child will have their own individualised bedroom, so that’s their own space. The layout of the home is to make it homely, it’s not anything other than a children’s home,” says Allen House manager Cindy Willis of its design.
However, it isn’t really a conventional children’s home. Allen House is one of two specialist homes set up this year by St. Christopher’s, both called ‘Safe Steps’, which work exclusively with 12-16-year-old girls considered at risk of sexual exploitation.
Backed by £1.19m in Department for Education funding, this was also the one of the last projects to receive support from the previous government’s innovation fund.
So, what makes Allen House so special? “I think the size allows us to do a lot of specific, tailored work inside of the building,” Willis says. “We have an education room, a room for therapy, a couple of other rooms that will help out in terms of space.
“The system we’ve got in place for the security of the building enables the staff to work really quickly…In conventional children’s homes, there isn’t that system in place.”
Safety is the first priority for girls who enter the home from any of the five London boroughs able to place them there.
Each child’s level of support is determined by the referral assessment before they are placed, which could mean that the minimum of two staff in the home at all times is increased if a girl needs one-to-one support.
Willis explains further: “When we feel there are risks outside of the building because of exploitation, gangs and drugs, and that a child wants to leave, the first port of call will be for the staff to use the relationships to try and encourage the child to stay.
“However, for some girls that will not be enough so there is the system in place where we don’t actually have to restrain the child to stop them from leaving. The front door can be locked for a specific time where we know there is immediate risk to that child.
“We hope that with the systems in place it will allow a period of time for staff to do specific work with the child. In a conventional children’s home, once they’ve kind of exhausted the discussion, the child eventually just walks out anyway.”
As soon as safety is ensured, it’s about reducing risk. Internet and mobile phones will be restricted when a girl first enters the house, to prevent access to abusers, and ongoing access will develop over the time they spend in the house.
Key to achieving these goals is the amount of specific work they can do in the home. Each child has a tailored risk management plan, along with a care and placement plan, which is reviewed daily to assess the risks and known risks.
“I think that makes it quite different to any other service where we are actually making decisions throughout the day whether we should put in methods of intervention that will reduce the risks,” says Willis.
Each girl could spend between three and nine months in the house, depending on need, and will have the advantage of working with a settled team because all staff are permanent.
Personal and special
Most staff have worked with children who have been exploited. “We have a range of staff, from social work, to residential work, youth work and psychology. So, it’s bringing that range of skills and experience to work with individual children,” Willis says.
While the house is an intensive support line for at-risk young girls, it is designed to look nothing like that. “We do have toughened glass windows, special curtain rails and lots of different things, but the idea is that you don’t really notice it’s a bit safer than other children’s homes,” explains Robinson.
The colour scheme is mainly purple, but they are waiting for the girls to move in and put their own stamp on it. Each room is named after a precious stone, because it’s more personal and special than numbers, and has wardrobe and storage space.
Staff are confident about the home’s potential to improve children’s lives. As part of its programme with the Department for Education, they have funding for a one-year pilot, after which its value to stakeholders will be evaluated.
“We’re also working on an independent evaluation with the University of Bedfordshire, and they are putting in specific outcomes, which will hopefully show the difference this approach makes compared to conventional homes,” Robinson explains.
Positivity and energy
There’s positivity and high energy in the air as staff prepare for the girls to move in – I visited two weeks before it opened as the finishing touches were being made – and an overwhelming sense of excitement to try something new and different.
“As professionals in this sector, we haven’t been keeping boys or girls safe from sexual exploitation – and that’s quite frustrating,” says Robinson. “We know we’ve not been getting it right. So, to get the chance to try something different that might work is really exciting. We have staff who have all come here because they want to do it – they want to take on that challenge.”
Willis agrees, and is confident enough to believe this could be a national solution to keeping all at-risk children, including boys, safe from abuse. “This is a really great opportunity for us to try and do something that other providers haven’t been able to do and for it to be rolled out across the country.”