Secure children’s home bed numbers fall despite huge level of need

String of court judgments have highlighted desperate plight of children with highly complex needs denied a placement, yet latest figures show falls in numbers of available beds and placements

Jigsaw puzzle showing supply demand gap
Photo: IQoncept/Adobe Stock

Secure children’s home bed numbers have fallen over the last year despite huge levels of need for placements for very vulnerable children, Department for Education data shows.

The number of approved places in England and Wales’s 14 homes dropped by 7.6%, from 249 to 230 in the year to March 2023, with just 203 of these available for use, down from 220 the year before.

The number of places contracted to the Ministry of Justice to place children detained by the criminal justice system remained stable, at 105, meaning the drop in capacity fell entirely on councils looking to place children on welfare grounds or, more rarely, on remand.

While capacity shrank, there was an even sharper fall, from 165 to 139 (15.8%) in the number of children placed in secure homes, with 74 children detained on welfare grounds, down from 82 to year before. Overall occupancy levels were 60% of approved places, down from 72% in 2020.

The figures come despite chronically high demand for welfare placements for children on secure accommodation orders, who typically have severe and complex needs such as self-harm, suicidal ideation or high risk of exploitation.

What is a secure accommodation order

Secure accommodation orders enable councils to deprive looked after children of their liberty in accommodation designated for this purpose, ie secure children’s homes. Under section 25 of the Children Act 1989, courts may only grant in one of the following two circumstances:

  1. The child has a history of absconding, would abscond from non-secure accommodation and, if they absconded, would be likely to suffer significant harm.
  2. The child would likely injure themselves or others if placed in non-secure accommodation.

Sharp rise in deprivation of liberty orders

Last year, Ofsted reported that 50 children were waiting for a secure welfare bed each day while the head of the family courts, Sir Andrew McFarlane, put the figure at 60-70 earlier this year.

This was in the latest in a series of rulings in which judges have lambasted the lack of secure provision in cases where councils have come before them seeking so-called deprivation of liberty (DoL) orders, under the High Court’s inherent jurisdiction.

These orders are often used in lieu of secure accommodation orders where there is no bed in a secure home, and their number has skyrocketed in recent years, from an estimated 103 in 2017-18 to a predicted 1,300 in the year to July 2023.

In many such cases, young people are placed in unregistered – and hence, unlawful – children’s homes. The Supreme Court has ruled that such placements are permissible on a short-term basis in “imperative considerations of necessity” and where there is no alternative available.

The legal lowdown on deprivation of liberty

For expert legal guidance on this topic, check out Community Care Inform Children’s guide to deprivation of liberty of children and young people using the inherent jurisdiction, by legal editor Tim Spencer-Lane. This covers:

  • What constitutes a deprivation of liberty.
  • When the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court can be used to deprive a child of their liberty.
  • How the courts have responded to applications to place children in unregistered placements in these cases.

It is available to all CC Inform Children subscribers. Find out more about how you can subscribe.

Reasons for failure to fill secure beds

Reasons for the failure to fill available secure beds were explored last year in a report by What Works for Early Intervention and Children’s Social Care. 

These included a lack of sufficiently skilled staff, the failure to adapt homes to the increasing severity of children’s needs and insufficient co-ordination in commissioning placements between councils, the youth custody service (YCS) and the NHS.

Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO), which monitors, and collects data, on the use of DoL orders, said: “A growing body of evidence shows that these children have often experienced childhood trauma, such as exposure to neglect, abuse, family dysfunction, violence, bereavement, abandonment and loss.

“Sometimes secure children’s homes refuse to take a child, despite having a place, because they are unable to meet their level of needs. The fall in the occupancy rate reflects this problem.”

“These latest figures underline the urgent need for a national response to the significant number of children with high needs and in complex circumstances for whom current provision is so clearly inadequate.”

Government plan to boost placement numbers

The Department for Education (DfE) intends to create 50 new places in secure homes, including in London and the West Midlands, where there is currently no provision, as part of a £259m investment in residential childcare from 2022-25.

It also aims to upgrade existing homes to improve occupancy levels and to promote more integrated commissioning of placements by councils, the YCS and NHS.

In response to the secure care figures, a DfE spokesperson said: “We are investing £259m to maintain capacity and expand provision in both secure and open children’s homes in all nine regions of England to make sure all children have the support and protection they need.

“We are committed to working with the judiciary, Ministry of Justice and other partners on improving outcomes for vulnerable children and maintaining the right level of children’s social care placements.”


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