Vulnerable children ‘falling through gaps’ due to chronic shortage of secure accommodation

Vulnerable children with complex needs are continuing to “fall through the gaps” due to a chronic shortage of secure care placements, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice MacDonald issued the warning in a ruling about a suicidal teenager in urgent need of a suitable place to live.

As of Friday, there was no secure placement available for the 16-year-old girl – referred to as G to protect her identity – anywhere in the UK, he said.

He said the lack of places left him with the “stark choice” of whether to send her to a “sub-optimal” placement because it is “the only option available” or allow her to be discharged into the community “where she will almost certainly cause herself possible fatal harm”.

The senior judge concluded he was left with “no option” but to make an order authorising the deprivation of the teenager’s liberty at the unregulated placement, saying it is the only one available and “the priority must be to keep G safe”.

Mr Justice MacDonald said: “The brutal reality facing the court in this case is that if not deprived of her liberty in an unregulated placement, there is an unacceptable risk that G will end her own life or cause herself, and possibly others, very serious physical harm.”

He said the background to G’s case is “one that is now depressingly familiar to the Family Division of the High Court”, and referred to previous similar cases – including one in April which involved a teenager being placed in a holiday cottage because no suitable placements were available.

He added: “By reason of the lack of adequate provision for secure accommodation and a lack of regulated provision for children, this court is once again driven to the situation where it must consider the use of an unregulated placement supplemented by an order authorising the deprivation of her liberty for a child who, on the local authority’s case, meets the statutory criteria for secure accommodation.”

Mr Justice MacDonald highlighted seven previous rulings relating to issues with a lack of secure placements, and said he was sending his ruling to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and others including Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, and Ofsted.

He said: “It is plain that, despite the issue being highlighted in multiple court decisions since 2017, and by the children’s commissioner, the shortage of clinical provision for placement of children and adolescents requiring assessment and treatment for mental health issues within a restrictive clinical environment, the shortage of secure placements and the shortage of regulated placements remains.

“In this context, children like G with highly complex needs and behaviour continue to fall through the gaps that exist between secure accommodation, regulated accommodation and detention under the mental health legislation.

“Besides the obvious prejudice to the welfare of highly vulnerable children that this situation creates, leaving society’s most vulnerable children without the help they need to address their complex emotional and mental health issues, the situation also has a highly corrosive effect on the decision-making process of local authorities and courts that is designed to assure the welfare of those children.”

The judge said the girl is currently “inappropriately placed” on an adult mental health ward and, if discharged, would have “nowhere to go”.

Lancashire County Council has been conducting a “diligent and comprehensive” search for an appropriate secure placement for the youngster across the UK “to no avail”, he added.

The judge also highlighted a letter to the court from the Secure Welfare Co-ordination Unit (SWCU), an organisation funded by the Department for Education, whose remit is to provide a single point of contact for local authorities in England and Wales to arrange secure welfare placements.

The letter said that due to bed capacity and the impact of Covid-19, a decision had been made to cease providing the names and locations of secure units available at any given time.

The judge said that the decision not to provide details of “even the geographical location of the new placements that may be available” means “information central to child-centred care planning is unavailable to a local authority”.

He said: “This may well make things easier for SWCU. The same cannot be said for the vulnerable children that local authorities, and in some cases the court, are charged with protecting.”

Mr Justice MacDonald said G’s case will be “urgently reviewed” on Monday to decide if the placement should be continued or alternative arrangements made.

Ms Longfield, said: “This is a shocking case which highlights a lack of capacity in the children’s social care system and children’s mental health services.

“Too often some of the most vulnerable children are falling through the gaps and not receiving the care they need because there isn’t the proper accommodation or support for them anywhere in the country.

“This is a desperate situation for children needing help and reinforces why the Government’s manifesto promise of a root and branch review of children’s social care is so urgent.”

Yvette Stanley, Ofsted’s national director for regulation and social care said: “Too often, councils are stuck between a rock and a hard place, resorting to using inappropriate placements that do not meet children’s needs, because there isn’t a viable alternative.

“A chronic shortage of specialist provision, especially in the secure estate and mental health services, means that the most vulnerable children aren’t always getting the care and support that they need.

“Ensuring there is enough good quality registered provision in the right places has to be a priority for the government’s forthcoming Care Review.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Local authorities are responsible for ensuring that there is sufficient accommodation available to meet the needs of children they look after.

“The Government has invested more than £40 million in secure children’s homes to support councils in meeting that duty.

“Our bold, broad and independently led Care Review will launch soon, and will support improvements in the children’s social care system.”

The lack of secure accommodation has been highlighted by a number of family judges in recent years, including the current president of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, and his predecessor Sir James Munby.

In April, Mr Justice Cobb said he intended to pass on his ruling to Mr Williamson to “raise awareness” of the plight of a teenager who was placed in a holiday cottage because no suitable placement was available.

Mrs Justice Judd raised similar concerns in July when approving a plan for a teenager with behavioural difficulties to be temporarily locked in a council house because there was no appropriate secure accommodation.

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