How we support the most vulnerable is a challenge for all of us

17 December 2020

As part of the Spending Review the Chancellor announced a new funding package for secure children’s homes to increase capacity and quality. This package is welcome, and there can be little doubt that this area will benefit from the funds. The question, as ever, is what it can be spent on to maximise the life chances of young people. Our new research can help to answer that question. 

The full report, written by CASCADE, Cardiff University and published at the start of December, makes use of new data not previously released by the Department for Education, on the characteristics, and outcomes, of young people referred to secure children’s homes.

The research points to a challenge in placing many of the children referred – with 40% not finding a secure children’s home place, and even those who are placed, only finding a place after several requests. 

Among those referred, younger, female children, and particularly those with a history of sexual exploitation, are more likely to be placed than those who are older, male, and have a history of violence. 

The picture is complex, and we are unable to attribute causality to any of what we find. Moreover, behind each of these data points, we must remember that there exists a child, often with very complex needs, and placing them is not a simple matter of allocating a child to an empty bed and considering that a job well done.

What is clear, however, is that the system is not functioning entirely as it is intended to. The young people most at risk of harming others are not always accommodated in secure beds, leaving them at risk of ending up in a youth offending institute, unregulated placements, or a range of other places. 

At the same time, young people who are the victims of appalling acts, and who are predominantly a risk to themselves are as likely to be accommodated in secure homes as they are to not, in a system which although designed for welfare reasons, is not originally intended to handle and alleviate the consequences of trauma as, for example, secure mental health care. 

The outcomes for these young people within a year of referral also make for unsettling reading. There is no causality to be had here, and so I stray from my role as the leader of a What Works centre by saying that surely we must be able to do better as a nation. 

In this context, I welcome the announcement by the chancellor that an extra £24million is to be invested in secure children’s homes. More money cannot hurt. 

However, despite the efforts of our research, there is still a lot more that we can learn about the lives of the young people accommodated in these settings (and those that are not),  about what goes on in them, and about what works. Answering questions about the impacts of secure children’s homes, and how those can be improved, is challenging – complexity, and small numbers are analytically uneasy bedfellows. I am convinced however, that we must do something, and therefore we will. Our researchers will be thinking in the near future about what shape that takes, and how we can shine still further light on the lives of these most vulnerable young people.

Read the report