Urgent calls for reform after horrific abuse of young people at private care homes

Posted: 20th April 2023

Source: The Guardian

Child safeguarding practice review panel says harm was result of day-to-day failures and oversight.

The government’s child safeguarding advisers have urged major reforms to protect severely disabled young people in residential care after “horrific and shocking” abuse revelations at a string of homes run by a private operator.

The child safeguarding practice review panel recommendations, published on Thursday, follow its earlier report on the systematic abuse and neglect of more than 100 young people at three facilities in Doncaster run by the Hesley Group.

That inquiry identified a “culture of abuse” in which children were physically, sexually and emotionally harmed by staff over a number of years. The panel described the lengthy catalogue of abuse as “dreadful and harrowing”.

Although the authorities in South Yorkshire finally launched an investigation into the abuse in March 2021, the latest panel report revealed that regulator Ofsted had failed to intervene for more than three years despite hundreds of complaints, serious incident notifications and staff whistleblowing reports about conditions at the three homes.

Children were punched, kicked, verbally taunted and subjected to inappropriate restraint, including being locked up overnight in bathrooms. The reports of cruelty and abuse at the homes are subject to a criminal investigation by South Yorkshire police.

Black female children placed at the Doncaster homes routinely had their hair shaved short when they arrived, at times against the wishes of their parents, the panel report said, describing it as an “unacceptable practice that was both depersonalising and degrading for the children”.

A spokesperson for Hesley Group said it was unaware of this practice, and no evidence this happened had been presented to the company before now. “We strongly rebut claims that the Hesley Group marginalised the cultural needs of children or young adults in our care,” the spokesperson said.

The children subjected to abuse in the Hesley-run homes are described by the report as some of society’s most vulnerable, typically with learning disabilities, autism and complex health needs. Many were placed in residential homes because of challenging behaviours that disrupted their home and school life.

“The appalling harm these children suffered was a result of grievous failures in both their day-to-day care and within the system of oversight that should have guaranteed their welfare,” said the report’s co-author Dame Christine Lenehan.

The panel chair, Annie Hudson, urged ministers to “honour and provide some measure of justice” to the abused children. “This will require unequivocal political and professional will, along with necessary investment, to deliver the substantive and strategic long-term changes that will make a difference to children’s lives,” she said.

Education secretary Gillian Keegan said she was horrified by the abuse and failings at the three Doncaster homes.

She added: “We have taken swift action to improve children’s immediate safety, including receiving assurances that all local authorities have reviewed the safety and wellbeing of all children placed in specialist provision.”

Although the panel’s report focuses primarily on failures of regulation and practice that allowed the abuse in the Doncaster homes to continue for so long, it is likely to reignite concerns about the fitness of the children’s care market and the huge profits racked up by private operators who run 75% of children’s homes in England.

According to a BBC investigation earlier this year, local authorities paid about £250,000 a year to place a child at the Doncaster homes, contributing to millions in profits for the Hesley Group. Last year the competition watchdog said the “dysfunctional” children’s residential care market in England meant councils paid excessive fees for often substandard services.

The panel report links the lucrative financial returns made by private providers to poor pay and high levels of staff vacancies and turnover in the sector, which it said were a safety risk to children. It suggested the biggest providers could increase pay and invest more in recruitment and training “given the high levels of profit”.

It also highlights the safeguarding risks to children placed in homes long distances from their family, usually because of local shortages of provision. The 108 children whose cases were examined by the panel were placed on average 95 miles from their family. One under-10 was almost 180 miles from home.

Many of the children at the three Doncaster facilities could have been supported at home, the panel said, but with councils finding it “difficult to invest in the range of community provision required” they often had little option but to place children in expensive homes far away where they risked being “out of sight and out of mind”.

John Pearce, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said: “The impact that 13 years of austerity has had on our ability to offer the kind of local solutions that allow all children to remain in provision close to home and connected to their communities, wherever possible, cannot be understated.”

The panel recommended ministers overhaul inspection practices, saying the existing system of oversight and regulation through Ofsted and others had failed. It also called on the government to develop a children’s workforce strategy to address wider concerns about staff training, recruitment and retention.

Ofsted said it welcomed the panel’s recommendations to improve oversight of the system. It accepts it missed opportunities to spot patterns and trends of abuse but believes many incidents were actively concealed by staff and management at the three homes.

A Hesley Group spokesperson said that since the three homes closed in 2021, the group had undergone a major restructure and made senior management changes. The group’s priority was to work with regulators to continue providing adult residential care and specialist education to people with complex needs”.

Categories: News