Better data needed on children in custody, says children's commissioner

Anne Longfield calls for better data to ensure children in custody are protected

Published on 17th May 2019

More than 200 children have had their Deprivation of Liberty authorised by a court but they are locked away and their whereabouts in the system is invisible, the children's commissioner for England has warned.

According to Anne Longfield, these are children who do not show up in the published data because they do not fit into any of the categories for which there is published data. This number is also likely to be an underestimate and there is no information as to where these children live or how long they have been there.

The children's commissioner for England is calling on local authorities to provide data for her offce, 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.

Anne Longfield, 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."

The commissioner has published a report 'Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up,' which aims to shine a light on the hundreds of children in England who are locked up in institutions across the country.

The report found:

- There were 1,465 children in England securely detained in 2018.

- There were 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.

- Around £300m a year is spent on the 1,465 children in England – excluding what is spent on those ‘invisible’ children whose settings there is no 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.

- Secure Training Centres cost £160,000 a year and Young Offender Institutions cost £76,000 a year.

The report warns that even for the children who are known 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.

It calls for the NHS to 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 also 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 also 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 said: “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," she concluded.

Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “Any decision to deprive a child of their liberty is taken extremely seriously, and only made in cases where there is no other option available to protect that child or those around them. These children will have extremely complex, significant needs, and councils work hard with their partners including in health and youth justice, to make sure these placements provide the support children need to overcome those issues in order to try and help them go on to live safe, independent lives.

“Every child in a secure placement will receive significant support from their council to make sure that they are safe, that their needs are being met and to ensure that they are only in that placement for as long as is necessary and appropriate.

“However with significant rises in demand for urgent child protection work and a £3.1 billion funding gap facing children’s services by 2025, councils do not have the funding they need to intervene early and provide the necessary support to children at risk and their families before it becomes a much more serious and complex problem. This is why it is vital government addresses this in the forthcoming Spending Review," she concluded.



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