Restricting children’s liberty – Are we heading for new disasters?

There has been a recent resurgence of interest in secure children’s homes for a number of reasons: some local authorities being forced to close their homes because of a lack of welfare referrals; the publication by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES )of Research Report No 749 Qualitative Study: The Use by Local Authorities of Secure Children’s Homes (Click here to see report); and the continuing concerns about the number of young people locked up in Britain compared with other parts of the world.

I have written previously in the Children Webmag about my concerns at the mismatch between the Government’s agenda for children looked after by local authorities and the operation of secure children’s homes within “the juvenile secure estate” since the Youth Justice Board (YJB) took over commissioning many of the places some years ago.

The number of young people placed in secure accommodation for what is known as “welfare reasons” appears to be declining, and the YJB is commissioning fewer places from local authority secure units as private providers of secure training centres expand their provision.  This has led to closures of secure children’s homes as the demand for places has decreased.

There will be many who applaud this, because locking up children is not something that should be encouraged.  Many will think that this is a positive trend and indicative of better solutions to the problems of young people.  But is this the reality?

There are three issues I wish to consider:

  1. the increased distances from home for many young people placed in secure accommodation,
  2. the alternatives to secure accommodation, which are not always the positive solutions they are seen to be by some, and
  3. the lack of a national strategy to ensure that provision matches needs.
Distance from home

When the YJB first started commissioning places from secure children’s homes about six or seven years ago, it was initially done without any reference to the other functions performed by the establishments.  In theory, the YJB could have commissioned all the places in any secure children’s home, meaning that those from the immediate area placed for welfare reasons would need to go further afield.

At the time I was head of a secure children’s home and raised my concerns with my own Director of Social Services, who circulated a report to the Social Services Inspectorate and the Association of Directors of Social Services.  An agreement was reached that the YJB would not commission the total capacity of any single secure home.

The research carried out for the DfES by Jane Held Consulting Ltd received a lot of publicity; the lack of treatment programmes in secure children’s homes and the availability of suitable alternatives were key factors in the reduction of use of secure places highlighted in the press.  I shall be commenting on the alternatives later in this article, but the reality is that secure places are diminishing, and consequently the choices for those placing young people for welfare reasons are declining.  Not only is the choice reduced in geographical terms, but many of those that survive do so only because they have a degree of financial security through their contracts with the YJB.

Mixing offenders with non-offenders within local authority secure settings has been a contentious issue for some time. Whilst locking non-offenders up with those who have been convicted is seen as inappropriate, many of the young people are on welfare or youth justice orders by chance, as they qualify on both counts. Whatever the reason for placement, young people who are locked up should be reasonably accessible to their families.

Alternatives to secure accommodation

The development of alternatives to secure accommodation has been a significant move by private providers.  These fall into two broad categories: registered children’s homes that provide high staff ratios, and companies offering periods of outdoor pursuits in remote areas.  The latter provision may be attached to a registered home, but may be neither registered nor regulated.  There is no doubt that many of these are of high quality, are preferred by some young people, and can be very effective.  Others give rise to concerns.

The most disturbing alternative is the outdoor pursuit type of project for up to 28 days that is not registered.  The report to the DfES found that only one authority in its survey had used such a provision, and for just four days; but these places exist, and presumably make a profit.  These should either be regulated or local authorities should be forbidden to use them.  It is doubtful whether a young person with challenging behaviour and a history of abuse should be in remote countryside with two or three adult strangers living under canvas. The dangers should be recognised now, rather than wait for the inevitable scandal.

 Most provision is regulated, and can be of very high quality.  I am not sure that many young people are consulted about the type of provision they would prefer.  There is a real difference between having freedom of movement inside a secure perimeter and being restricted physically by the presence of adults, and a child’s preferences are likely to be personal.

As an independent person working in a number of roles in recent years, I have been concerned about the operation of some regulated provision.  One example relates to a children’s home specialising in young people with inappropriate sexualised behaviour.

I was acting as an advocate in a number of children’s homes operated by private companies.  All the residents of a particular home had histories of sexualised behaviour, and restrictions on their movements were quite severe.  I was asked by one young person to attend his review because he felt that the local authority was taking too long to locate his next placement.  He wanted me to see the relevant reports and help him at his review.  What was most disturbing for me was not the issue he raised, but finding out the facts about how his care plan had been managed.

At the time of the review he was almost sixteen and due to go into a semi-independent placement.  It transpired that he had only been allowed outside the home unsupervised for periods up to half an hour during the latter weeks of his two-year placement.  The only recorded sexualised behaviour occurred at home when he was around ten or eleven years of age, the victim being a younger sibling.  He was not placed in this specialised home until he was fourteen.  At the review I was able to ask about preparing him for semi-independence, and what additional unsupervised time would be allocated to him.  The responses concerned me for two reasons.

Firstly, giving him longer periods unsupervised was seen as unfair to the other young people in the home who were on the same restriction.  This goes against the requirement for individual care plans to meet the assessed needs of young people.  In the two secure units I managed between 1984 and 2001 young people had much greater periods of unsupervised time out of security, built up over time, on an individualised basis.  Rather than other young people seeing it as unfair, they could see that their own progress would be marked by ever-increasing freedoms.  This provided an incentive to work positively on the issues that were the reason for their Secure Order.

Secondly, risk assessment was quoted as justification.  This was not a comprehensive risk assessment covering all areas that would be expected in his care plan, but a narrow one provided by a private consultancy purely relating to sexual offending.  This appeared to be standard practice within the establishment.  Risk assessments were based mainly on statistical chances of re-offending; unless the likelihood was deemed negligible liberty would be restricted.  Both in this case, and another which I was involved in, the only problems had been within the family, and there was no inappropriate activity in the community on record.   In addition, the sexual behaviour in this case was displayed when the lad was probably pre-pubescent, although his liberty was restricted some years later.

The law is quite clear; liberty can only be restricted in approved premises with a permissive order granted by a court.  What, then, is the authority for this type of provision?  I assume the need to safeguard the public would be the justification, and such restriction is deemed necessary through an assessment of risk.  Most young people looked after in children’s homes will have some restriction placed on their movements. However, when this is enforced by adults barring the exits, it is surely illegal.  Had this been an adult without a court order it would not have been tolerated.

The need for a national strategy

The ad hoc basis on which the services are provided – both within and outside the legal and regulatory framework – means that things are in danger of drifting.  The Government needs to address the issues I have raised.  There is a range of options they could explore.

For example, the Jane Held Consulting report identifies secure accommodation used for young people requiring security under mental health legislation, and recommends that :

“Consideration be given to what would be needed to facilitate the development of hybrid secure services which can be used for young people on a mental health section or for young people on welfare grounds so the “false divide” between those young people who are subject to a diagnosed mental health problem and those who are troubled and troublesome is eliminated.”

This proposal has one clear advantage; one of the criticisms of secure children’s homes is the lack of psychiatric and related services.  From my experience of managing a secure children’s home, this deficiency is never from the lack of effort to secure the appropriate services, but the inability or unwillingness of local health services to supply what is required.  Linking the provisions would ensure that the services are available to the young people who need them.

More radically, all the services for young people – including youth justice – could be brought under the DfES and out of the Home Office.  This would ensure that all young people benefit from Every Child Matters.  In the 24 August 2006 edition of Community Care, Rob Allen, YJB member and director of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, is reported to be about to make this point in a forthcoming report.  It is ironic that a Government intent on tackling social exclusion has policies that further disadvantage some of the most deprived children in the country.

The permissible limits of using adult presence to restrict children’s liberty beyond what might be normal and reasonable must be defined and enforced by the Commission for Social Care Inspection.

The loophole that allows adults who have not had security checks to take vulnerable children into the countryside for lengthy periods must be closed.

The situation where providers of services can open or close provision without reference to a national commissioning strategy cannot continue.

This highly vulnerable and marginalised group of young people needs a better deal.

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