Let me start by paying tribute to the children, parents and staff who spoke out. The suffering they endured is unthinkable and an all too tragic reminder that this kind of abuse is not a thing of the past. It is happening now, and everyone working with and for children must act to make sure it doesn’t.
Today’s report from the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, outlining the abuse and neglect of children in residential special schools operated by the Hesley Group in Doncaster, is both deeply upsetting and incredibly frustrating. These children, who have complex disabilities and health needs, were in the care of local authorities because this was deemed to be better for them than staying with their families. However, instead of being protected, they were victimised, with their disabilities a key factor in enabling the abusers and preventing the children themselves from being heard.
The fact that such abuse can still be perpetrated is a reminder of the paramount importance of giving all children a voice, particularly those who are cared for away from home. In this case, once again, we saw that, despite the involvement of numerous agencies in these children’s lives, nobody had a full picture of what they were experiencing. We must ensure that every child living in a residential setting is supported to express their wishes and feelings, however they can. When children are denied this opportunity, there is a far greater risk of abuse going undetected.
I welcome the recommendations in the report and urge local authorities to conduct the proposed Quality and Safety Reviews immediately. However, having a safe, appropriate, high-quality placement should be a given for every child in care. All looked after children should have regular, in-person social work visits and care reviews by law, and these cannot be simply an administrative exercise – they must address children’s needs and wellbeing in every key area of their life, with a central focus on their wishes and feelings.
The children in these homes had profound communication difficulties and were not supported to participate in their reviews. All of them were entitled to an independent advocate but the report found little evidence of this service being offered to them. Children were also rarely able to see visiting professionals and family members without residential care staff present, with their challenging behaviour used as the justification. By not putting children’s right to express their feelings at the centre of their care, they were denied opportunities to report the abuse they were experiencing.
That is why children’s voices must be at the heart of every visit, every review, every inspection. When children have disabilities which make communication challenging for them, their social care professionals must make sure that appropriate tools and approaches are used, so that this not a reason to deprive them of their right to be heard.
There are currently around 1,700 children with disabilities in England who are looked after by local authorities and living in residential special schools that are registered as children’s home. We have a duty to all of these children and their families to ensure they are safe, happy, well-cared for, and given agency over their lives as far as possible.
In my vision paper for Children’s Social Care I called for more support to enable children with disabilities to stay at home or be cared for in an alternative family environment. For those children who live in residential settings, these must be of the highest possible standard and provide the same safety, love, and care as a good family. Children also need to have a central role in their care plans and reviews, and this includes disabled children, supported by professionals and specialist advocates where needed. This is absolutely essential to ensuring that children are seen, heard and safe. More details can be found in my Plan of Action for Reforming Children’s Homes.
The failings set out in the Panel’s report are not new and will happen again without urgent change. They echo what children, families and professionals tell my advice and advocacy service for children, Help at Hand, every day.
This week I will be writing to every children’s home and residential special school in the country to ensure they have the details of Help at Hand readily available for children, parents, and professionals, so they can contact us if they have any problems or concerns. The team can provide assistance to children to ensure their rights are upheld and they are supported and safeguarded appropriately. They can also refer children to local specialist advocates, who can communicate on their behalf if needed.
My office is also a prescribed body for whistleblowing referrals related to children’s services. Professionals can contact Help at Hand in confidence to share any concerns they have, and the team will follow-up to ensure matters are investigated thoroughly and children are protected.
This report is yet another reminder that we must keep children’s experiences and voices at the heart of the social care system, even when their complex needs make this more challenging. Every child, wherever they are living, must receive the standard of care we would expect for our own children and I will continue to push for urgent improvements to the system until we have made this a reality.