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Hundreds of vulnerable and mentally ill children ‘locked up by the state’ because councils lack sufficient funding

More than a thousand vulnerable and mentally ill children are being “locked up” in temporary accomadation because local authorities lack sufficient funding to support them and their families, according to a daming new report.

A damning report published by the Children’s Commissioner for England finds that hundreds of children in England are being are locked up in institutions across the country.

The report, “Who are they? Where are they?, has gathered data from English councils about how some of the most vulnerable children in England have become “invisible” to local authoroities.

photo credit: Honza Soukup via photopin cc

It finds that 1,465 children in England were 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, the report warns that this number is likely to be an underestimate due to gaps in the publicly accessible data.

The UK spends around £300m a year on 1,465 England children who are regarded as being in genuine need of support, and this excludes what we spend on those “invisible” children whose settings we don’t have information about.

According to the report, there are an additional 211 children whose Deprivation of Liberty has been authorised by a court, who are locked away but whose whereabouts in the system is unknown to authorities.

“Even for those children we know about, there is only limited information about how long children stay in secure settings, how long they wait for a place, whether they face delays in the transfer of care to the community and what happens when they leave”, the report says.

The report adds: “NHS England has 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 is only one secure mental health bed per 100,000 children, while in the East Midlands there are nearly eight.

“The number of beds in England is significantly lower than the figures available for children detained under the Mental Health Act.”

The Children’s Commissioner has called for (as quoted):

  • Local authorities to provide data to the Children’s Commissioner, Ofsted and the CQC 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.
  • 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.
Photo credit: madamepsychosis via photopin cc

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, 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.”

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