16th May 2019

Almost 1,500 children in England are locked up by the state at a cost of a third of a billion a year

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, is today publishing a report shining a light on the hundreds of children in England who are locked up in institutions across the country. The report, Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up gathers together for the first time all the data currently available about some of the most vulnerable children in England – those living in secure children’s homes, youth justice settings, mental health wards and other residential placements, either for their own safety or the safety of others.

The report seeks to identify who these children are and where they living, the costs of keeping them locked up, whether these institutions always meet their complex needs and whether different decisions could have been taken to prevent these children being locked away.

Some of the main findings in the report include:

  • There were 1,465 children in England 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, this number is likely to be an underestimate due to gaps in the data.
  • We spend around £300m a year on 1,465 children in England – excluding what we spend on those ‘invisible’ children whose settings we don’t have information about.
  • Medium Secure Mental Health Settings are the most expensive form of provision, at £1,611 a day or £588,015 a year. Secure Children’s Homes have an estimated cost per child of £210,000 per year, with Secure Training Centres at £160,000 a year and Young Offender Institutions at £76,000.
  • 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 invisible. These are children who do not show up in the published data because they don’t fit into any of the categories for which there is published data. This number is also likely to be an underestimate. We do not know where these children live or how long they have been there.
  • 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.
  • 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 makes a number of recommendations in her report, including:

  • Calling for 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.

Anne Longfield, the Childrens Commissioner for England, commenting on the report, 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.”

Find out more and read the report