Chronic lack of secure accommodation demands urgent action, judge reminds government

Court told 'very serious' ongoing secure unit beds backlog means councils are unable to make adequate plans for extremely vulnerable young people

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A family court judge in North Wales has become the latest to highlight the national shortage of secure accommodation for young people, which he called “very serious” and “chronic”.

In a judgment made in May at Prestatyn, and published this month, Judge Gareth Jones said local authorities were being driven to make applications for secure placements “which are very often merited”.

“But on the basis that the secure accommodation unit has not been identified, appropriate plans with regard to visits, therapeutic provision, educational provision and contact provision, simply cannot be provided for the court,” he added.

‘Fragile’ individual

The case before Judge Jones concerned a 15-year-old girl who had struggled to settle at a number of foster placements and had also absconded from an out-of-area residential placement.

The judgment described her as being “fragile”, at risk of being preyed upon by older men, and in need of secure accommodation support in order to help her manage her behaviour.

An interim secure accommodation order had been granted at a hearing on 28 March, but a 17-case backlog of pending referrals for secure beds across England and Wales meant no place could be found for the teenager until 16 April.

Despite granting a three-month order, Judge Jones said sending the teenager to the available placement, which is a long way from her home area, was a far from ideal solution.

“The distance involved means that local authority key workers have to travel a considerable distance to the location of the secure placement which has been identified,” he said. “The young person’s guardian and solicitor have had to make a similar journey and the young person’s extended family, who maintain contact with her, also have to make a similar journey.”

‘Urgent remedial action’

Judge Jones ordered the judgment to be made public in order to “draw attention to this particular area, where deficiencies have become apparent and where remedial action is very urgently called for”.

He said relevant authorities, including the English and Welsh governments, needed to be reminded of the ongoing breakdown in the system, and that the public should be able to “see what is actually taking place”.

Several judges took similar decisions during 2017, with one writing to then-education secretary Justine Greening after Southwark council was unable to find a bed for a 14-year-old boy involved in serious criminal activity.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Legal responsibility for ensuring there are sufficient secure placements rests with local authorities. However, we are aware there have been occasions where lack of secure accommodation has been an issue, and we are seeking to address the wider issues around commissioning of secure placements.

The spokesperson added: “We are working with local government and other stakeholders to develop alternative provision for children with particularly complex behaviours, at high risk of needing a secure placement.”

Community Care has also approached the Department for Education (DfE) for comment.

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