Where are the secure children’s home places?

15 July 2022

Written in collaboration with Dr Anders Bach-Mortensen, postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford and previously affiliated researcher at WWCSC.

Back in 2020, we looked at the pathways of children referred to secure children’s homes for welfare reasons, and discovered that two out of five children could not be found a place. This is a worrying and surprising finding considering that official DFE statistics show that occupancy rates are generally below 80% (and often lower), suggesting that beds are often available in these homes. As part of our research for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, we wanted to better understand the secure children’s home provision and its commissioning and placement process, and how this could be reformed to improve outcomes for children and young people.

The Department for Education defines secure children’s homes as “children’s homes which provide a locked environment and restrict a child or young person’s liberty.” These homes have been developed to safeguard the most vulnerable children in society in a therapeutic environment. They provide care and accommodation to two groups of children and young people: those who have been detained or sentenced by the criminal courts to secure local authority accommodation and those referred there on welfare grounds by local authorities and the courts (under section 25 of the Children’s Act 1989). In addition, children on remand can be placed in secure children’s homes by their local authority whilst their criminal justice pathway is determined.

To understand the main challenges in the system, we reviewed the existing research on the sector, analysed all secure children’s home Ofsted reports, and carried out 17 semi-structured expert interviews with a range of organisations. These included representatives from the Youth Custody Service, secure children’s homes managers, and local authority commissioners. We conducted a thematic analysis of the Ofsted reports and interview transcripts to identify key themes and develop possible recommendations.

One key emerging theme was the sense from stakeholders that the needs of children referred to secure children’s homes have become more complex. Many interviewees reported that secure children’s homes have struggled to adapt to meet children’s increasingly severe mental health needs. This development was often used to explain why occupancy rates are low: although a certain number of physical beds are available, the resources required to accommodate children vary depending on their individual needs. Some children require significantly more staff attention and expertise, and this variation is not captured by occupancy rates, which many stakeholders therefore considered to be misleading. Moreover, focusing on occupancy rates may present a potential equity problem; there’s the risk it might drive facilities to prioritise places for children with less severe needs who need less staff support, meaning that children who are most in need of a placement are the hardest to place.

For this reason, one of our conclusions was that occupancy rates are not by themselves a meaningful indicator of supply as they don’t reflect placement complexity. High need children can require staffing resources that are equivalent to multiple beds. Interviewees also highlighted that retention and recruitment of staff is a prevalent and serious barrier to meeting the needs of children and increasing the occupancy capacity of homes.

Children can be placed in secure children’s homes through different pathways, but previous research suggests that there is a large overlap between children in these groups. These overlapping needs are not currently reflected in the commissioning system with the Ministry of Justice (justice places) and local authorities (welfare places) each using separate commissioning channels and processes.

Overall interviewees felt that the commissioning and placement process worked better for justice placements. This was partly because they use block contracts, meaning beds are already paid for providing homes with more financial stability and the Ministry of Justice with an ex ante placement commitment from homes.  One additional advantage of justice placements is that the Ministry of Justice have alternative secure accommodation (for example, youth offender institutions) in case of placement breakdowns, which is not the case for children in a welfare placement.

Given the overlap between children in welfare and justice beds, most participants recommended a joint commissioning system for all children referred to secure children’s homes. Interviewees felt this would lead to better coordination and make the placement process more equitable, ending the situation where children on a justice pathway are more easy to place. However, stakeholders stressed that a joint commissioning system would only work if two underlying problems are resolved: (1) solving current challenges around workforce and (2) modernising homes so they can meet the needs of the current cohort of children.

The other main recommendation was for improved national oversight of the sector. There was a sense that as children’s needs have become more severe, it is now necessary for a national system to help homes respond. Most interviewees felt the lack of national oversight was problematic, particularly in terms of the lack of support and guidance on how to help children transition back to the community following their placement. There was generally agreement that national guidance and oversight on how homes should operate and a shared outcome framework on how to evaluate impact are crucial if there is to be meaningful change in the sector.

It is therefore welcome that the Independent Review of Children’s Social care has made a series of recommendations that recognise the need for more join up. At a national level, the Review calls for children living in secure children’s homes (for welfare or justice reasons) to become the responsibility of the Department for Education, to ensure this area gets more prominence. It also proposes that secure children’s homes for both justice and welfare placements are commissioned and run by new Regional Care Cooperatives.

We now wait for the government to respond to these recommendations in the autumn, with the hope that future changes will ensure that children referred to secure children’s homes are able to access the support they need.

You can find out more about our research into Secure Children’s Homes in our midday webinar on 1 August, where we will also be joined by Alice Roe from the Family Justice Observatory who will talk about how our research builds on their own findings and what the next steps are. You can sign up here and find out more about all our webinars here.