Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, is calling for the Government to change the law to stop councils placing under 18s in care in unregulated accommodation. The change would see all children in care who need a residential placement housed in accommodation regulated under the same standards as children’s homes, and would put an end to 16 and 17 year olds being placed in bedsits, hostels and caravans.
The call comes as the Children’s Commissioner publishes a report, ‘Unregulated: Children in care living in semi-independent accommodation’, revealing how thousands of children in care are living in unregulated independent or semi-independent accommodation. These settings are not inspected and children living there often go without regular support from adults. This accommodation can range from a flat to a hostel or bedsit, and in the worst cases caravans, tents and in one case even a barge. These looked after children are entitled to ‘support’ but not ‘care’, and as a result are too often being left to fend for themselves, with minimal support, for all but a few hours a week.
The report reveals that one in eight children in care spent some time in an unregulated placements in 2018-19, and that the number is increasing due to the lack of capacity in children’s homes and an outdated belief that children aged just 16 should be ready to become independent. The Children’s Commissioner’s report shines a light on the experiences of some of these children. While the Children’s Commissioner’s Office did hear from children about high quality settings and the support they received from staff, they also heard some shocking stories, including from children with mental health, self-harm or drug issues who became victims of exploitation and abuse while living in unregulated accommodation.
The report also shows how some providers are making extraordinary profits from unregulated accommodation. It highlights how many desperate councils are paying thousands of pounds a week to private providers who are then providing poor quality accommodation and little in the way of support to often very vulnerable children. Some of these providers are also avoiding routine procedures designed to keep children safe, including DBS checks.
Earlier this year the Government recognised the scale of the problem and promised much-needed reform. Its proposals include a ban on the use of unregulated placements for under 16s and introducing new national standards, potentially enforced by Ofsted via a new inspection regime. While the Government’s commitment to reform is encouraging, the Children’s Commissioner does not believe the proposals go far enough to provide every child in care up to the age of 18 with the protection they need.
As well as calling for the use of semi-independent and independent provision to be made illegal for all children in care, the report makes a number of recommendations, including:
Increasing capacity across the care system. It is critical that the forthcoming Government Care Review promised in the Conservative manifesto addresses the challenge of sufficiency of appropriate care across the care system as a whole – especially capacity in the residential care sector.
- Clarification of what care looks like for children of different ages, including older teens. Ensuring that all children in care receive care, rather than support, does not mean refusing independence to older teens who are ready for it. For example, it may be appropriate for children of this age to have more freedom to come and go from home, and any curfew should be agreed by negotiation rather than instruction – the same as with any 16 and 17 year old living at home with their parents. The current system does not seem to allow this.
- Strengthening the role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs). Councils have a duty to appoint an IRO to every child in care. They are experienced social workers who oversee and scrutinise the care plan of the child and ensure that everyone who is involved in that child’s life fulfils his or her responsibilities. It is important that IROs visit placements prior to children being placed, in order to assess their suitability. This would help prevent later placement breakdowns, which are highly damaging to children and can be costly to resolve.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said:
“The Government has proposed cleaning up the unregulated sector by introducing new minimum standards, but this does not address the real problem – allowing children under 18 to be placed in this accommodation in the first place.
“For too long children have been placed in this inappropriate accommodation as the sector has gone unchecked, with some providers making large profits from substandard and unsafe accommodation while offering little to no support. Ultimately it is the 1 in 8 children in care who spend time in unregulated accommodation who pay the price. These children are often left in extremely vulnerable situations, putting them at increased risk of exploitation by organised criminal gangs or abusers.
“Every parent wants their children to have stable, secure homes with access to the support and care they need. Nobody would willingly put their own child in the sort of places and situations that this report highlights.
“This is about the basic standards of care we provide to children looked after by the state: a safe and secure place to live and proper support to help with the challenges they face. This is the minimum we would expect for every child, yet there are 12,000 children in England looked after by the state for whom these standards do not apply. That is why the law must change so that all looked after children who need a residential placement are housed in accommodation regulated under the same standards as children’s homes.”