Story updated 1 February 2022
The government should be responsible for ensuring there are enough secure placements for looked-after children to address the current shortage, the Children’s Commissioner for England has said.
In July last year, Ofsted said that, at any one time, 25 children were waiting for a place at one of England’s 13 secure homes, and 20 children from England had been placed in secure units in Scotland.
The shortage has forced local authorities to seek court orders for bespoke placements for children needing secure care, causing judges to repeatedly criticise the lack of provision nationally for children with complex needs. Under section 25 of the Children Act 1989, secure placements are reserved for looked-after children who would otherwise be likely to abscond, putting themselves at significant risk, or to injure themselves or others.
The commissioner, Rachel de Souza, made the call for the Department for Education (DfE) to address the current shortage in a report on improving provision for looked-after children, published this week. Under her plan, councils would still bear the costs of the placements.
The report, which is designed to influence the children’s social care review, made a number of proposals to improve stability and support for looked-after children and enable them to have a much greater say in how they are cared for.
Instability ‘the single biggest failure’
The commissioner said that placement instability – rooted in the lack of provision – was the “single biggest failure” in services for looked-after children, with one in four experiencing two or more moves every two years.
De Souza called for an England-wide strategy to reduce instability, with a national target to reduce this rate to one in ten children within five years, and local targets for councils to reduce their rates.
Authorities should be bound to set out how they would meet their targets in their sufficiency strategies, said the commissioner. These are required under their duty to secure sufficient accommodation for looked-after children in their area for whom a local placement would be appropriate.
De Souza also urged the care review to consider recommending that Ofsted inspections assess councils against the quality of their sufficiency strategies and the rates of instability experienced by children.
The report highlighted the value of looked-after children having at least one trusting relationship, but said this was undermined by high turnover of social workers. Previous research by the commissioner has found that three in five children in care experience a change of social worker each year, with one in four having two or more changes.
“Children should be able to expect their social worker to support them over several years, with a proper handover process whereby children are able to build up a relationship before any crucial decisions are made,” the report said.
De Souza said practitioners needed to be freed up to invest time in building relationships with children in care, through reduced caseloads and paperwork.
As well as investment in the workforce, she said this could be achieved by increasing the use of automation when making records and through “shared systems” that reduced the need for social workers to fill out “duplicate referrals”.
However, the report said that, where children had a difficult rapport with their social worker, they should be able to build a trusting relationship with another professional, such as an advocate or a youth worker.
IRO role ‘not working’
Children should also play a greater role in their reviews, saying they too rarely believed they could shape the process, being greatly outnumbered by professionals, some of whom they did not know well.
The commissioner said the independent reviewing officer (IRO) role was not working, with children rarely having strong relationships with them outside of reviews, which IROs chair. She also said IROs, who are employed by local authorities, did not have sufficient independence to challenge decisions while also not being able to take sufficient ownership of outcomes for the children they were responsible for.
While the report did not make any specific recommendations to reform the role, the commissioner called for “greater connection between IROs and advocacy services to provide more independent challenge”.
Longstanding sufficiency concerns
De Souza’s report follows many that have raised significant concerns about the lack of placements for looked-after children, including from her predecessor as commissioner, Anne Longfield.
Both the care review and the Competition and Markets Authority, in its current study on children’s social care, have raised concerns about the power providers had to dictate terms to local authorities, leading to high prices and insufficient provision.
In its interim report, the CMA suggested moving towards regional or national procurement or commissioning of looked-after children’s placements to give councils more clout with providers. It will provide recommendations on the issue in its final report, due by March.
Meanwhile, the government has provided £259m, from 2022-25, to increase the capacity of open and secure children’s homes.
Alongside this, Ofsted has made regulatory changes to enable providers to register children’s homes with up to four buildings, to tackle capacity challenges.
In response to de Souza’s report, Association of Directors of Children’s Services vice president Steve Crocker welcomed her call “for the DfE to play a greater role in securing sufficiency in secure children’s homes”
He said the ADCS believed that “a wholly new and much more therapeutic approach” for children and young people with “very complex and overlapping health, education and social care needs” – the cohort who may need secure care.
“Unfortunately, finding the right placement, at the right time and in the best location for a growing number of children in our care is becoming increasingly difficult because we face a national shortage of placements of all types,” Crocker added.
He said the CMA and care review’s work would be “crucial in enabling local authorities to meet their sufficiency duties in future”, and that the extra government investment and Ofsted regulatory changes would “help ease these challenges down the line”.
Ofsted’s national director for social care, Yvette Stanley, said it would back a “national commissioning strategy for secure placements”, based on an assessment of the needs of children across the youth justice, care and mental health systems.
Children ‘placed over 100 miles away’
She added: “As well as ensuring there are enough places, stability in revenue and capital funding is needed to maintain and upgrade buildings, so they can meet the needs of the children now in the system.
“Placements also need to be in the right places. In some cases, we are seeing children placed over 100 miles away from their homes, which has a real impact on family and community bonds.”
In relation to setting targets for stability, Stanley said data alone can be “a blunt and inaccurate measure of progress”, but that “well-designed, measurable targets” could, with other actions, “be motivating and lead to positive change”.
She said that Ofsted would be “happy to be part of the conversation that considers different approaches to make sure this is a priority”.
In relation to Ofsted inspections assessing councils’ delivery of their sufficiency strategies and the rates of instability experienced by looked-after children, Stanley said she sould be happy to engage in discussions.
However, she added: “Sufficiency of placements is central to our work, but we look at this through the lens of individual children’s experiences, rather than an evaluation of strategies, policies and procedures. At a local level the number of these children will be small, so planning needs to be joined up regionally and nationally.”
The current framework for Ofsted’s inspections of local authorities asks councils to provide a range of relevant information including their sufficiency strategy, and associated commissioning plans.