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What do we know about children and young people deprived of their liberty?

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A review of the evidence

An important new report by Alice Roe for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory summarises what we know about children and young people deprived of their liberty across welfare, youth justice and mental health settings in England and Wales from national administrative data and recent research studies.

Drawing on national administrative data and research from the past 10 years, the report bring together what we know about children deprived of their liberty across welfare, youth justice and mental health settings in England and Wales. It summarises what we know about the number of children held in different settings, who the children are, where they are placed, their experiences of secure care, and what happens to them afterwards.  

It follows widespread concern in the child welfare system about a shortage of placements in registered secure children’s homes, the increasing numbers of children being deprived of their liberty in unregistered placements because there is nowhere else for them to go, and the capacity and capability of the system to meet the complex needs of this group of children. 

Key findings

  • The largest group of children deprived of their liberty are living in the youth justice secure estate. The next largest group of children deprived of their liberty are those detained under the Mental Health Act (1983). A smaller number of children are detained in secure children’s homes under section 25 (s.25) of the Children Act 1989. There is not comparable, up-to-date information about the number of children deprived of their liberty under the inherent jurisdiction of the high court, or under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.  
  • Many more children are referred for a place in a secure children’s home on welfare grounds than can ultimately be placed. In 2020, just one in two children referred for a place in a secure children’s home were found one.  
  • There is some evidence that there is a cohort of children with particularly complex needs who are seen as too ‘challenging’ to be suitable for a secure children’s home. This includes children with very complex mental health needs but who do not meet criteria for detention under the Mental Health Act. This has led to a significant increase in the use of the inherent jurisdiction of the high court to deprive children of their liberty in alternative placements. In 2020/21, 579 applications were made under the inherent jurisdiction in England – a 462% increase from 2017/18. In 2020/21, for the first time, applications made under the inherent jurisdiction outnumbered applications under s.25 of the Children Act 1989. This is a major cause for concern given that we do not know where these children are placed, what restrictions are placed on their liberty, or what their outcomes are.  
  • It is not yet clear how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the number of children placed in secure settings and there is need for further research in this area. We do know, however, that many secure children’s homes have been operating at reduced capacity, which has placed further strain on the system.  

Where are children placed?

  • The size of the secure estate in England and Wales has declined over the past two decades, in particular with the closure of 16 secure children’s homes since 2002.  
  • The limited number of secure settings in England and Wales means that children are likely to be living far away from home. In 2019/20, 74% of children in youth custody were placed more than 24 miles from home; the median distance from home for children placed in secure children’s homes for welfare reasons was 82 miles.
  • In addition, over 50 children, on average, have been placed in secure children’s homes in Scotland by English and Welsh local authorities each year over the last five years. From 2022, Scottish secure children’s homes will no longer accept cross-border placements, which will place additional pressure on the availability of welfare secure placements in England and Wales.  
  • We know very little about where children refused a place in a secure children’s home go on to be placed, including the use of the inherent jurisdiction to deprive them of their liberty in alternative placements. 
  • The number of children placed in adult in-patient wards while detained under the Mental Health Act is concerning. The most recent data suggests that this practice has increased in the past year.

What do we know about the effectiveness of these placements?

Alongside concerns about the lack of appropriate placements for this group of very vulnerable children, the main other conclusion from this review is that we don’t know much about the outcomes of children who end up in these institutions. Here are the main conclusions and recommendations:

  • There is a lack of systematic and longitudinal research about children’s outcomes following secure care. The use of a consistent set of outcome measures – which would follow on from an agreed set of aims/statement of purpose for settings – would help.  
  • The evidence available does not allow any firm conclusions to be drawn about the impact of a secure placement on children’s short and long-term outcomes.  
  • We know that reoffending rates for children placed in youth custody are high. There is a lack of data on other outcomes.  
  • There is very little data on outcomes following detention under the Mental Health Act.  
  • Some children placed in secure children’s homes on welfare grounds reportedly benefit, but for others the placement is ineffective or makes things worse. In the long term, evidence suggests that a placement in secure care is unable to fundamentally transform children’s outcomes. This is also the result of a lack of coordinated support and suitable placements for children when they leave secure care. 

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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