I was profoundly shocked and angered by the allegations of abuse perpetrated towards children with disabilities in residential settings managed by the Hesley group, which was outlined in the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel’s report last October. I was pleased to be involved in the follow-up work for Phase 2 of the report, published today, and I welcome the report’s recommendations, which have been informed by wide consultation with families and professionals.
At the heart of this report is the necessity of keeping the voices of children and their families central to their support, and of providing safe, suitable care where required. It is a message I wholeheartedly endorse. Every child, no matter their background or circumstances, deserves to be surrounded by adults who are as ambitious for them as they are for themselves, and will act accordingly to protect and advocate for them.
This report highlights that behaviour seen as challenging is often a means of children communicating that their needs are not being met. That is why providing appropriate opportunities to express their wishes, with the support of their families and trusted professionals, is an essential aspect of early intervention and preventing crises like those seen in these settings run by the Hesley group.
In cases where children with disabilities and complex health needs must be cared for in residential settings, I agree with the report’s recommendation that all of these children should have access to independently commissioned advocates trained in communication and safeguarding, who can represent their best interests even when the child is non-verbal or has a learning disability.
Parents who spoke to the review quite rightly wanted their children to have the same experience and opportunities as their peers, and to be valued in the same way. I echo this ambition. They also wanted the right information, support, and training to care for their child, and to have positive relationships with schools and a consistent key professional. However, the message from the report, echoing the findings of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, the Government’s SEND Review and research conducted by my office is that the support children and their families received in the community and their schools was generally poor.
The report makes a strong argument for more positive engagement with parents and improved cultural awareness from professionals, with an emphasis on creative solutions and commissioning personalised intensive support that keeps families together safely.
I support the call for the Government’s Family Help offer to ensure that families of children with disabilities and complex health needs have access to personalised support, incorporating school, community and specialist services, and the recommendation that this should be included in the pathfinder programmes in Children’s Social Care and SEND Implementation Plans.
My ambition is that no child should live in an institution, but instead is surrounded by love, care and positive relationships with adults that support them into their own adulthood. However, there will be some children who do need specialist residential care, and for this group, the conditions of a caring, stable family environment should be reflected in the care they receive. This report sets out strong recommendations for creating effective partnerships between local authorities and Integrated Care Boards (ICBs) as a way of commissioning safe, suitable care for children with complex needs locally, as well as developing a skilled, well-supported workforce, where leaders promote a positive safeguarding culture and strong, positive relationships between children and staff. I support the recommendation for local authorities and ICBs to have stronger oversight of the safety and quality of children’s residential settings in their area, and the call for the DfE and DHSC to review the regulatory framework for SEND and children’s social care in a timely and consistent way for residential special schools and children’s homes.
I am particularly pleased that this report is clear on the importance of recognising that children with disabilities have specific needs and risks which should be set out in statutory guidance. However, ultimately, children will only be kept safe if they are consistently seen and heard, through positive contact with their families, face-to-face visits from social workers, independent reviewing officers and health commissioners, and a greater level of professional curiosity from all those responsible for their care.
I fully support this report’s central notion that the development of robust, consistent and effective community-based provision should be the focus going forward. However, where children do live in residential settings, these need to be places where they feel loved, safe, cared for, and heard, so that no child is left at risk of abuse and all are supported to thrive and fulfil their potential.
These recommendations are consistent with my office’s reports on children’s homes, the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) and Alternative Provision review and work on the Children’s Social Care Review Implementation Strategy, which can be found on the Children’s Commissioner’s website.
My Help at Hand team can provide assistance to children to ensure their rights are upheld and they are supported and safeguarded appropriately, and can also refer children to local specialist advocates. The team can be contacted on 0800 528 0731 or by emailing [email protected].