THE NUMBER OF CHILDREN IN ENGLAND waiting for a place in a secure children’s home (SCH) has doubled in a year, new figures show, underlining the urgent need for the Government to tackle the severe lack of provision that supports some of the most vulnerable young people in the country.

Latest government data shows that at any one time, around 50 children each day are waiting for a place in secure accommodation – an increase from 25 last year.

The Local Government Association, which represents councils, is calling for an overhaul of the system used to place children in SCHs, with the introduction of a national commissioning service for co-ordinating placements.

SCHs provide care for some of the most vulnerable young people, who have very complex or challenging needs.

Councils place children in secure accommodation when no other type of placement can keep them safe, as they are a significant risk to themselves or others. The Youth Custody Service places children in SCHs when they are remanded to custody by the courts or are serving a custodial sentence, and an SCH better meets their needs than a young offender institution or secure training centre.

Councils have been raising increasing concerns for some time about the challenges in finding suitable homes for children who need to live in secure settings, emphasising the very real risks to children’s wellbeing and the dangers of not being able to provide children with the right support.

Research also shows that:

  • At any one time, around 30 children are being placed in Scottish secure units – up from 20 the previous year – due to a shortage of places in England. This comes as the Scottish Care Review has recommended that Scotland no longer allows placements from councils in England.
  • Of children referred to SCHs over an 18 month period from 2016-2018, two in five were not found a place and were instead placed in alternative accommodation such as a children’s home or foster care. One in 10 was placed in a young offender institution.
  • In the three years to 2020/21, the number of applications made to the High Court to deprive children of their liberty under inherent jurisdiction – used when a secure placement cannot be found for a child in an SCH, youth custody or mental health inpatient setting – an ncrease from 108 to 579 per year.

All but one of England’s 13 SCHs are run by individual local authorities – 12 councils – providing a total of 233 places. These councils hold the financial risk of running this provision, along with ensuring the safety and wellbeing of the children in their care, on behalf of 152 councils with responsibility for children’s services.

The LGA says that the current approach of relying on a very small number of councils to run a national service does not support the necessary expansion of services, and means children often have to live very far from home.

While local development and commissioning of homes for children in care is the best approach in most cases, this is far more difficult where councils may be seeking only a very small number of highly specialist placements each year. A national commissioning approach would enable the pooling of budgets and expertise, along with more strategic planning to futureproof services.

In addition, the LGA is calling for the NHS to play a greater role in supporting placements for children with the most complex needs,  particularly given the reductions in children’s inpatient mental health beds which are putting further pressure on children’s social care services.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The fact there are as many as 50 children waiting for a placement on any one day is a damning indictment of a system that is supposed to ensure they get the care and support they need.

“Secure children’s homes protect and care for some of the most vulnerable children in society, who often have very complex and challenging needs and deserve the best possible care and support.

“It is absolutely vital that we have sufficient places available to provide what is essential, very specialised support. Without this, the impact on children can be devastating.

“This is why we are calling on government to work urgently with councils to deliver a fresh approach to secure children’s home provision, by creating a national commissioning service which best meets the needs of young people who need support the most.”

* The official figures are contained in Main findings: children’s social care in England 2022 here.

* Source: Local Government Association