Government must answer for secure care failings, say council and judge

Judge highlights problems faced by Southwark in search for suitable secure care for neglected teen caught up in gang crime

A council leader has accused the government of “failing in its responsibility” to care for a vulnerable boy after his authority struggled to find appropriate secure accommodation for the child.

Peter John, leader of Southwark council, said he was “saddened” by its initial inability to find a suitable placement for the boy, who has been involved in serious criminal activity, “despite our greatest efforts to find somewhere that keeps him, and others, safe”.

In a ruling published late last month, Mr Justice Hayden described the 14-year-old, ‘F’, as having “fallen into a ‘gap’ in the system”.

He initially extended Southwark council’s existing authorisation to deprive the boy of his liberty via two-on-one supervision in a “shored-up” residential unit. After Justice Hayden listed the case to appear before him again the following day, and took the unusual step of ordering Southwark’s director to appear in court, the council was able to find an interim secure placement for the boy.

Jutice Hayden then made a 12-week secure accommodation order.

John said: “Thankfully, through the efforts of officers and the support of the judge, we have placed the young person in a secure residential unit, where he will be supported and cared for over the next few months.”

‘Wider problem’

However, he said problems finding secure care placements went “much wider than Southwark”,

He added: “How can it be right that as a country we cannot find a safe home for a very troubled 14-year-old boy? The fact remains that the government has failed in its responsibility to provide a placement for this vulnerable young person when we requested it.

“I think it’s now time for the government to step up and develop a long-term plan so other councils, and children, aren’t left in this desperate situation again.”

‘Opaque’ structures

Justice Hayden also made critical comments about the Secure Children’s Homes network and the National Secure Welfare Commissioning Unit (NSWCU). The latter is a government agency set up, according to its website, “to provide a dedicated single point of contact to arrange secure welfare placements and streamline the process of finding the most suitable placement”.

“None of the advocates in this case has been able to identify anyone within these organisations prepared to acknowledge ultimate responsibility, neither have the social services nor the [children’s] Guardian,” Justice Hayden said. “The structures are opaque, they ought to be transparent.”

Justice Hayden stated his intention to send a copy of his ruling to Justine Greening, the education secretary with whom, he said, “ultimately, the responsibility for this must lie”.

He also drew attention to the case’s similarity to another recently published judgment, relating to a 17-year-old with complex emotional and mental health needs for whom no suitable child and adolescent mental health placement could be found.

‘Serious gangland activity’

In his ruling, Justice Hayden said there were “real grounds” to believe that the boy, who had been subject to a care order since June 2017, was involved in “serious gangland activity”, including working as a drugs courier. At the time of the judgment he was facing two robbery charges and had a conviction relating to knives.

An April 2017 psychiatric report, summarised by the judge in his ruling, noted that the boy had a complex care history and had suffered emotional and possibly physical neglect.

“He has developed [an] insecure, avoidant pattern of attachment characterised by overly developed sense of self reliance and a correspondingly distant relationship with adults whom he does not see as safe, or authoritative or dependable,” the judgment said.

The psychiatric report added that he had been excluded from school and placed in special educational provision. It deemed him to be at risk of future mental health difficulties, offending behaviour and substance abuse as well as “profound challenges informing mutually supporting relationships and [a] compromised ability to parent”.

Accordingly, the welfare conclusion in the boy’s June care proceedings was that he should be placed in a residential unit, where he was already living as part of interim arrangements. But, two days before the final care order was made, he absconded and was missing until being discovered “quite by chance” during an 8 August police raid on a Peckham crack house.

‘The only plan’

Three days later, on 11 August, Southwark applied to place him in secure accommodation. “This has since that time been their only plan,” Justice Hayden said. “There is no other nor, in my judgement, can there be any.”

While the council was unable to find a suitable secure placement, its deprivation of liberty application was granted with a view to supervising the boy two-to-one until appropriate housing could be found. Justice Hayden noted that in the fortnight after the deprivation of liberty had first been authorised, Southwark had continued its search “day after day”, making “all attempts humanly possible” but without success.

The judge noted that, at the time of the 24 August hearing, a bed was available at a secure unit, Aycliffe, but that there were insufficient staff and resources available there to place the boy.

As of 31 March 2017, the 14 secure children’s homes open in England offered 232 places, of which 205 were ‘available’ with 21 unoccupied, according to Department for Education (DfE) data quoted in Ofsted’s most recent report Children’s Social Care in England report.

The NSWCU declined to discuss F’s case, referring Community Care to the DfE, as its commissioner.

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