Secure Children’s Homes (SCHs) in the UK are licensed to deprive young people referred to them by court of their liberty. Young people placed in SCHs are either sentenced or on remand through the justice system or placed due to local authority concerns that a young person is a serious risk to themselves or others. At present SCHs lack sufficient capacity to provide a place for all young people referred to them for welfare reasons. When this happens, local authorities must provide an alternative accommodation that meets the young person’s needs and keeps them safe. With little knowledge of the experiences of young people from England who receive a secure order for welfare reasons, this study set out to explore and compare similarities and differences between the journeys and outcomes of young people placed in SCHs and those housed in an alternative accommodation.
The study was interested in the pathways and outcomes of young people from England referred to secure accommodation for welfare reasons both before and after the time spent in either an SCH or alternative accommodation. Specifically, the study wanted to explore
- Young people’s life and care histories in the three years prior to referral to secure accommodation
- Details of the subsequent placement in a SCH or alternative accommodation
- Care, substance misuse, conviction, and mental health outcomes in the year after referral to secure accommodation
- The comparative costs of SCH and alternative placements
How we went about it
The study was an analysis of three routinely collected data sets which contain information about the young people’s contact with the care system and referral to a secure accommodation. The data sources used were
- Children in Need returns
- Children Looked After returns
- Records of referral to and subsequent use of SCHs or alternative accommodation held by the Secure Welfare Coordination Unit (SWCU)
The data underwent a series of statistical analyses which identified similarities and differences between the experiences, care histories and outcomes of young people placed in SCHs and those placed in alternative accommodation.
- Of 527 young people from England referred to secure accommodation over the study time frame, 319 were placed in a SCH and 208 in an alternative accommodation.
- All young people referred for a secure accommodation order were a ‘child in need’ at some time in the three years before referral to secure accommodation and nearly all at referral to secure accommodation. The vast majority of young people were looked after in the three years before the secure accommodation referral with little difference found in the length, number or episodes of care for young people placed in SCH or alternative accommodation
- Nearly all young people who received a secure order had a history of absconding, and high numbers were linked to records of aggressive behaviour, substance misuse, and offending behaviours. A history of challenging behaviours, previous offending, gang association and sexually harming behaviours increased the likelihood of being placed in an alternative accommodation. Having been a victim of sexual exploitation increased the chances of being placed in a SCH. The odds of being refused a place in a SCH increased with age and having a history of challenging behaviours.
- In the year after referral to the courts for a secure order more young people subsequently placed in an alternative accommodation were re-referred to a SCH or other secure setting.
Some of the most vulnerable young people in society are referred to SCHs, but this study found that, for many, places were not provided. The forthcoming Care Review must examine current policy and practice related to the care offered to these young people. Specifically:
- The lack of knowledge of what alternative accommodation consists of demands further exploration to discover whether it is appropriate and if it can be viewed as a real alternative to a SCH. Local authorities should report to Ofsted when children who apply for a SCH cannot be placed and record what alternative accommodation is provided (including whether this involves the deprivation of their liberty or not).
- The number of applications required before a SCH place is provided, and the fact that many children initially rejected from SCH and placed in alternative accommodation are later given a SCH place, indicates that the current placement process and supply of placements is inadequate. This should be reviewed, to ensure children can get access to the support they need at the right time.
- Specific consideration should be given to what support and placements can be provided to older boys with a history of challenging behaviour who were more likely to be refused places in a SCH.
- The support provided to young people when they leave SCH or alternative accommodation should be reviewed, given the current situation where, on average, young people experience three new placements in the year after referral.
- Study analysis of outcomes was limited to the available measures within local authority records. Data linkage with justice, health and education databases should be taken forward to help build our understanding of the experiences of these young people.
- Further research is needed to look at the support provided for children and young people who are referred to SCHs, who have complex needs often related to substance misuse and offending. An evidence base should be developed to help identify which interventions should be provided to improve their outcomes.