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Criminal Care? · 23 Mar 2018

Notes from visits to children’s homes

In January we visited a number of children’s homes run by a charity in England.

We first approached this particular provider because we heard about their success in reducing police call-outs to their children’s homes. In 2014, the charity saw 132 episodes reported to their local police force. In 2017, that number had reduced to 17.

Much of the previous contact with the police came from missing incidents. The charity revised its policies and procedures so that each child has an individual behaviour support plan and an individual missing from care risk assessment. There also seems to have been a concerted effort to improve their relationship with the police, so that they can work together to avoid criminalising children.

It was clear that the charity is committed to improving the outcomes for the children in its care. But it was also clear that there are system-wide challenges which limit what can be achieved.

The charity works with children who often present a high level of need, including children with self-harming behaviours and children who have experienced child sexual exploitation. The therapeutic work has proved helpful in supporting staff to understand why a child is presenting challenging behaviour and how to respond to the child’s needs appropriately to help avoid police involvement when an incident occurs.

We were told about the ethos which underpins the charity’s work and how staff are encouraged to role model behaviour and to “hold the child in mind”. This enables staff to respond to challenging behaviours and not react, working through difficult challenges and teaching children how best to manage their emotions.

Children’s bedrooms had been individualised and there were certificates and other signs of achievement on the walls

We saw children’s homes that were ‘homely’, with various pictures of children throughout the houses, including school photos. Children’s bedrooms had been individualised and there were certificates and other signs of achievement on the walls.

The real challenge comes from the sheer scale of need. The charity we visited provides residential care for up to 50 children and young people but can receive up to around 500 referrals from across the country each month. It has a good reputation for working with younger children. Staff told us that serious issues such as involvement in county lines gangs are becoming more visible among children that are referred to them and at a younger and younger age. There are occasions when the referrals team have to refuse placements because they know that some children might not be able to settle alongside others already in placement. Matching and Impact Assessments are key in ensuring that placements for children are driven towards successful outcomes for all young people.

At the same time, pressures on local authority budgets mean residential care providers have to offer ‘competitive’ rates and keep costs down. As a charity, this particular provider can invest some of its own funding into its service – for example, to fund psychiatric assessments and therapies with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in order to avoid long waiting lists for the necessary treatments available. This is unusual, however. 72 per cent of children’s homes are in the private sector, with only 8 per cent of homes run by voluntary sector providers.

There is a broader question as to how much charities should be plugging gaps in statutory services. Local authorities are the corporate parents for children in care. We were told about one example of a child with a high level of need where the charity put in additional resources; covering the costs themselves, to ensure that the child was appropriately cared for.

If children are not given the right level of support by those agencies who are meant to care for them, then it can be no surprise if challenging behaviour ends up with the police being called. If there is one place that will make things worse, it is the criminal justice system.

However, it is clear that this organisation makes every effort to minimise young people entering the criminal justice system and understand the negative impact this can have on their lives and future prospects.

Andrew Neilson


  • PJ says:

    Private residential provision is the main culprit, responsible for high numbers of criminalised looked after children. They operate a business model – money first, children – second. Until the system changes and an opportunity to make money on vulnerable children and young people is removed, we will not see improvements.

  • jez says:

    It’s really good to hear that some charities go that extra mile to provide what is necessary. Yet they do so at there own expense because the appropriate authorities don’t have the resources. Seeing only the short term cost and not looking at the long term benefits. Funding that requires government support will rarely look at the long term because politicians don’t see that far ahead

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