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Children’s Commissioner urges councils to set out legal basis for deprivations of liberty of children in their area

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called on local authorities to provide her with data on the number of children deprived of liberty in their area at any one time, the legal basis for that deprivation of liberty, and where those children are living.

Anne Longfield said this data should also be given to Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission.

Longfield’s call came last week as she published a report, Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up, which gathered together for the first time all the data currently available about those living in secure children’s homes, youth justice settings, mental health wards and other residential placements, either for their own safety or the safety of others.

The report sought to identify whether these institutions always met the children’s complex needs and whether different decisions could have been taken to prevent them being locked away.

Some of the main findings in the report include:

  • There were 1,465 children in England securely detained in 2018, of whom 873 were in held in youth justice settings, 505 were in mental health wards and 87 were in secure children’s homes for their own welfare. However, this number was likely to be an underestimate due to gaps in the data, the Commissioner said.
  • Around £300m is spent a year on 1,465 children in England – excluding what is spent on those ‘invisible’ children whose settings the Commissioner didn’t have information about.
  • Medium Secure Mental Health Settings were the most expensive form of provision, at £1,611 a day or £588,015 a year. Secure Children’s Homes have an estimated cost per child of £210,000 per year, with Secure Training Centres at £160,000 a year and Young Offender Institutions at £76,000.
  • There were an additional 211 children whose Deprivation of Liberty had been authorised by a court, “who are locked away but whose whereabouts in the system is invisible”. The report said: “These are children who do not show up in the published data because they don’t fit into any of the categories for which there is published data. This number is also likely to be an underestimate. We do not know where these children live or how long they have been there.”
  • Even for those children the Commissioner knew about, there was only limited information about how long children stayed in secure settings, how long they waited for a place, whether they faced delays in the transfer of care to the community and what happened when they left.
  • NHS England had provided the Children’s Commissioner with its current list of the specialism, unit type and number of beds for children in mental health units across England. In the South West, there was only one secure mental health bed per 100,000 children, while in the East Midlands there were nearly eight. The number of beds in England was significantly lower than the figures available for children detained under the Mental Health Act.

In addition to issuing her call for councils to provide data, the Children’s Commissioner recommended that:

  • The NHS should ensure that data is published on the age, ethnicity and gender for all children detained at a given point in time in their annual report, and increase coverage of data returns to 100% of settings. The DfE should publish the ethnicity of children detained in Secure Children’s Homes, on welfare grounds.
  • Data which is routinely collected on admission to custody, mental health wards or Secure Children’s homes about the mental health, learning or social care needs of children in settings should be published annually, and NHS England should publish figures about the length of stay in hospital for children sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
  • The Department for Education, the Minister of Justice and Department for Health should set up a joint working group to looking at how data can be better collected, what lessons can be learnt on issues like restraint and segregation and which seeks a better understanding of the pathways of children into and out of the secure estate and between different sectors of secure accommodation. “There is also not enough information about how these children are treated when in secure settings, for example how many times they are restrained or placed in segregation. Better information is needed in order to hold providers to account and reduce restrictive practices across all settings.”

Anne Longfield said: “There are hundreds of children in England growing up behind closed doors, locked away for their own safety or the safety of others. They should never be invisible or forgotten. Our research shows the system that detains them is messy and the state often lacks very basic information about who all these children are, where they are living and why they are there. Shockingly, we found over 200 children who would have remained completely invisible in the national data had we not asked about them.

“Locking children up is an extreme form of intervention. We are spending millions of pounds on these packages of care and yet there is far too little oversight of why they are there, their journeys into this system and the safeguards in place to protect them once they are there. These children are some of the most vulnerable and have often repeatedly been let down by the state earlier in their lives, in some cases turned away from foster homes or excluded from school.

“In the past it has been too easy to simply lock up children and not worry about their outcomes. We need a much better system that invests in early help and provides targeted support to children who are in danger of entering the criminal justice system or who are growing up in families with severe problems.”

Earlier this month the President of the Family Division said he would issue practice guidance to the courts before the end of July so that more can be done to bring secure accommodation placements within the statutory regulatory scheme.

Giving the Nicholas Wall Memorial Lecture 2019, Sir Andrew McFarlane questioned the ability of the Children Act 1989 to encompass the needs of young people who may require to be accommodated in circumstances where their liberty is restricted.

He also warned that the number of young people who needed this form of accommodation far exceeded the number of approved places available. "I understand that at any one time each secure bed that comes free will have between 15 and 20 potential occupiers chasing it," the judge said.

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