Campaigners have warned of a “national child protection emergency” in England with vulnerable and disturbed children languishing for months in unsuitable placements while social workers attempt to find them secure homes.
According to figures obtained from the Department for Education after a freedom of information request, the average time a child who has been deprived of their liberty for their own protection will spend waiting for a secure placement is currently 65 days. In the two years to 19 October, the longest time a child had to wait for a secure placement was 211 days.
The DfE said there were just 128 beds in 13 secure children’s homes in England available to local authorities, who hold the statutory duty to care for and protect children who have been assessed as needing this type of specialist home.
On 14 September this year, 58 children in need of a secure placement were chasing just two beds available in the whole of England. On 22 September, 62 children required a secure placement but only three were on offer, the figures show.
Kathy Evans, the chief executive of the charity Children England, which represents the voluntary sector on children and family issues said: “This is a long-term abject commissioning failure. Children have been dying for lack of suitable care since the start of my career in 1993 and they’re still dying now. There have been no serious strategic attempts to commission secure children’s homes for welfare, as opposed to custodial, reasons, in three decades.”
Some children are never able to live in registered, regulated secure homes at all, but are instead placed in unregistered and therefore unlawful ones.
In October the mental health of a 13-year-old girl deprived of her liberty who had languished for more than three months on a hospital ward deteriorated so severely that a high court judge had to authorise increased restraint, and raise her monitoring levels so that three, rather than two care workers were watching her through the night.
Despite the girl being described by the barrister for Manchester city council as “a young soul in anguish,” ongoing searches to find a regulated, registered secure children’s home that would take her had proved futile. Mr Justice Poole ordered that her case be referred to the secretary of state and children’s commissioner. He ruled he was left with no option but to authorise her removal from the hospital the next day to an unlawful, unregistered placement instead.
Carolyne Willow, the director of children’s charity Article 39, said: “Family court judges have been sending their judgments to the education secretary, the children’s commissioner and the chief social worker, yet this still hasn’t registered as a national child protection emergency.”
Willow is appealing against a refusal by the DfE to answer her freedom of information request for sight of a report about children dying and suffering other serious harms while in local authority care.
“Depriving children of their liberty is a grave measure which invariably exposes systematic failures in care, protection and support over many years,” she said. “We need the whole of government to accept its obligations towards children in the care of the state, which is why we are pressing for legal duties that would guarantee sufficient funding for councils and effective national planning.”
A spokesperson for the DfE said: “Keeping vulnerable children safe is a key responsibility for local authorities, who have a duty to protect them. This includes making sure they are placed in the right accommodation and that they receive the appropriate care they deserve.
“We are investing £259m up to 2025 to provide more high-quality, safe homes for these young people and expand the number of places available. We are also funding projects over the same period to create more provision in all regions of England to support children with more complex needs and address shortfalls in specific areas.”News