A judge has called the young people’s secure accommodation system a ‘distorted sellers’ market’ after no suitable placement could be found for a mentally unwell 16-year-old involved in ‘county lines’ gang activity.
At a family court hearing in Bromley earlier this month, Judge Mary Lazarus declined to make a secure accommodation order for the teenager, ‘O’, who had been assessed as needing therapy in 2017 and had absconded from previous placements.
The judge, who praised “assiduous” work by Bromley council’s social workers in pursuit of a “thankless” search, concluded that granting an order when no accommodation was available would be pointless and run counter to legislation.
In her judgment – the latest in a sequence of similar cases, which former family courts president Sir James Munby warned could leave “blood on [the judciary’s] hands” – Judge Lazarus said she was “dismayed, frustrated and outraged”.
More cases concerning secure accommodation
Judge Lazarus also noted that Sir Andrew McFarlane, Sir James’ successor, had already raised concerns about councils applying to the High Court seeking to make alternative arrangements to restrict young people’s liberty, because the statutory system was breaking down.
She ordered a copy of the judgment be sent to secretaries of state, for education and communities and local government, as well as the children’s commissioner’s office.
‘Time running out’
O had previously been placed in secure accommodation, during 2017 and again over the winter up to February 2018, which Judge Lazarus said had offered “temporary containment and managed to limit his negative associations”.
But the judge added that time was “running out” for the young man, who had a street robbery conviction from 2016 and had repeatedly gone missing and threatened to send gang members after professionals.
In late August 2018 he was arrested when Class A drugs and a machete were found in the car he was travelling in, the judgment said, resulting in the current application for secure accommodation.
Since then, while a placement was being sought, he had continued absconding from an unregulated home and had made social media posts that “raised concerns” – though he had also partly engaged with a programme aimed at steering young people away from gangs.
Judge Lazarus highlighted social workers’ “repeated and persistent” efforts to resolve the accommodation issue, contacting dozens of units in a fruitless six-week effort to find an available placement.
“I thank the social workers for their hard work trying to look after O’s interests, and I expect them to continue to try to do so while facing the almost impossible difficulties of this impasse,” the judge said.
She added that the pressure on the secure accommodation system meant providers could easily fill their beds with “more straightforward” young people than O.
“The demand is such that it has become a distorted sellers’ market,” Judge Lazarus said. “Secure units have acquired an unintended ability to pick and choose which children they are prepared to accept, without incurring the risk of lost income due to their beds going unfilled.”
‘Defeats the purpose of an order’
In refusing Bromley council’s application for a secure accommodation order, the judge drew on case law establishing that “there is a prerequisite expectation of placement in secure accommodation prior to the application being sought… which can only be dislodged in exceptional circumstances.”
Judge Lazarus said making an order would “largely defeat [its safeguarding] purpose”, given that time would begin to tick down while a potentially futile hunt for accommodation continued. She added that while O’s circumstances were “grave”, the reality that there were many children at risk in similar situations meant she was unable to deem him “exceptional”.
“It seems local authorities have woken up to their duties to those young people who are falling prey to gang life, and are properly treating this as a child protection and safeguarding concern,” the judge said. “It also seems unfortunately clear that the systems in place to service this need are inadequate, as is witnessed by the circumstances of this case.”
Responding to the judgment, a Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to improve care and support for every child who needs it, including the right accommodation that meets their needs and keeps them safe.
“We know secure children’s homes play an important role in looking after some of the most vulnerable children. That’s why we are investing in three new proposals to expand the capacity of secure accommodation, supporting councils in their duty to make sure there are enough places available for the young people that need them.”
The DfE confirmed the ‘new’ proposals referred to the government’s ongoing £40 million Secure Accommodation Capital Programme, intended to upgrade and maintain facilities and to increase capacity, as well as exploring new commissioning options and establishing a residential care leadership board to drive forward system and practice change.
The latter two measures stem from Sir Martin Narey’s 2016 review of residential care. Sir Alan Wood, who also heads up the new What Works Centre for children’s social care, was appointed as chair of the board in November 2017.