Two in five young people referred to secure children’s homes for welfare placed elsewhere, study reveals

Research highlights scale of secure accommodation crisis, with older boys displaying challenging behaviour particularly likely to be failed by the system

Teenager looking upset
Photo; motortion/Adobe Stock

by Alice Blackwell and Alex Turner

Two in five young people referred to a secure children’s home for their welfare have not subsequently been offered a place in one, research has found.

The study, by Cardiff University’s CASCADE centre, found that of 527 children referred to the specialist facilities between 1 October 2016 and 31 March 2018, only 319 were placed in a secure children’s home with the rest ending up in alternative accommodation.

The research found older boys with challenging behaviour were especially likely to be failed by the system. Children with a history of offending or sexually harming behaviour, or associations with gangs, were also more likely to be refused a secure accommodation placement.

Even for children who were successfully referred, the process took on average three attempts, the study found. For those who were not placed, alternative arrangements were typically made after six unsuccessful attempts – in some cases spanning months – to access a secure children’s home.

The findings underscore the severity of the crisis in secure accommodation for some of the UK’s most vulnerable children, which a succession of court judgments have drawn attention to over the past few years.

Analysis published in November by the Children’s Commissioner for England revealed that, though the 13 approved secure children’s homes in England nominally provided 133 ‘welfare’ places, just 108 beds were available, either due to insufficient staffing capacity or because facilities were being refurbished. As of March 2020, 81 young people were being housed on welfare – as opposed to youth justice – grounds.

High levels of sexual exploitation

Young people can be placed for their welfare in secure facilities via an order under section 25 of the Children Act. This is typically if they have a history of absconding from placements, or if being housed in a non-secure placement is likely to put them at risk of suffering harm or injuring others.

More than half (56%) the children referred to secure children’s homes – and almost two-thirds (63%) of those who were placed – were victims of sexual exploitation, CASCADE’s new research, carried out on behalf of What Works for Children’s Social Care, found.

Half of children referred were at risk of self-harm (50.3%), while 45% had a diagnosed or suspected mental health condition.

The research found young people of Black or mixed ethnicity were disproportionately likely to be referred to a secure children’s home. The finding correlates with previous studies demonstrating that children from these ethnic groups are likelier to grow up in deprived communities and, therefore, to experience safeguarding interventions.

Carolyne Willow, the director of children’s rights charity Article 39, said the research “shines a very bright spotlight on the terrible scale of abuse, disadvantage and exclusion faced by children who are deemed to require a place in a secure children’s home.”

She added: “It also shows the desperate state of our child welfare system – over a [nearly] two-year period, around four in every 10 looked-after children who needed a place in a secure children’s home didn’t get one.”

Calls for better data on ‘alternative arrangements’

Among children for whom secure accommodation could not be found following a referral, nearly half (48%) were placed in non-secure children’s homes, the study said. Almost a tenth (9%), meanwhile, wound up in a young offender institution (YOI) – likely because of an offence committed while waiting for their secure children’s home placement, although the research team drew no conclusions to this effect.

Many of the remainder were placed into foster care, into unregulated independent living settings, or with parents, while for 15% there was no data. The report also said 5% of the young people were ‘not looked after’ following unsuccessful referrals to secure children’s homes, a statistic that appears to run counter to children who are subject to a secure accommodation order being classed as such by default.

Published judgments have increasingly recorded children being detained in unorthodox and unsuitable settings, such as the recent instance of a Sutton teenager who was deprived of her liberty in a council house because no approved secure accommodation could be found. The What Works report highlighted that there was a dearth of available information as to the details of ‘alternative’ placements actually entailed.

“The lack of knowledge of what alternative accommodation consists of demands further exploration to discover whether it is appropriate and if it can be viewed as a real alternative to a secure children’s home,” it said. “Local authorities should report to Ofsted when children who apply for a SCH cannot be placed and record what alternative accommodation is provided (including whether this involves the deprivation of their liberty or not).”

Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield also called for improved data on the outcomes for children who end up in alternative accommodation, which she said included “makeshift settings such as holiday homes or hotels, which simply aren’t an appropriate substitute”.

She added: “Nobody is collecting any information about them and how they are managing so it is impossible for regulators or inspectors to make sure they are in what most of us would understand as safe places. I have called for this information to be collected and shared with my office and Ofsted and at the same time we also need to make sure there is sufficient high-quality, specialist care for this very vulnerable group of children. They deserve no less.”

Questions for government

Young people who were placed in alternative accommodation were found to be twice as likely to record a further move to a YOI, prison or secure children’s home in the year following their original referral, compared with those placed originally in a secure home. Those who successfully accessed a SCH were almost three times as likely to move on to a standard regulated children’s home as their peers who were first placed via alternative arrangements.

But the study said that regardless of whether children accessed approved secure accommodation, they still experienced an average of three placement moves in the year following their referral. It found also found little difference in the social and emotional wellbeing of the two groups following referral – though the report cautioned that this was based on data relating to a small number of individuals.

Article 39’s Carolyne Willow said many of the report’s detailed findings – including around children’s outcomes, how some children came to be classed as ‘not looked after’ following a secure accommodation referral, and how so many young people not successfully placed ended up in YOIs – threw up more questions than answers.

“There are a lot of caveats in the outcomes section of the technical report, and the researchers rightly call for new types of measures,” she said.

Willow noted that a recent freedom of information request by Article 39 had obtained documents covering the work of the government’s now-disbanded Residential Care Leadership Board. “One of them stated that 15 secure children’s homes had been closed since 2003,” she said. “The family courts are issuing the most strongly-worded judgments in respect of highly vulnerable looked after children for whom no specialised care placement is available.

“How can it be right that 17% of children who did get a place in a secure children’s home went there from unregulated accommodation or so-called independent living? Ministers should be sorting this now, not pushing it down the line to the care review,” Willow added. “By suggesting that the secure children’s homes system is failing children, there’s a risk that What Works Children’s Social Care will divert attention away from the government urgently getting a grip on ensuring children’s residential care, including secure children’s homes, is properly planned and resourced.”

Michael Sanders, chief executive, What Works for Children’s Social Care, said the research had shone a light into the little-understood world of secure accommodation.

“I’m saddened to see such poor outcomes for young people referred to secure children’s homes – whether they find a place or not – and will work with colleagues across the sector to see how we can help,” he said.

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