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 placement in 2018-19 and that the number is increasing due to the lack of capacity in children’s homes and an outdated belief that children aged just 16 should be ready to become independent.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.
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.’
Responding to report, Cllr Judith Blake, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said:
‘Ensuring that young people in care and care leavers are able to live in good quality homes that meet their needs is a key priority for councils.
‘However, as the number of children in care has increased year on year, it has become increasingly difficult to find suitable children’s home accommodation for all of the children who need it. This is undoubtedly driving the increasing use of unregulated and unregistered accommodation.
‘It is vital that the Government urgently takes action to increase the availability of homes for young people with complex or challenging needs and provides funding and support to councils to ensure that they are able to give these young people the safe, nurturing homes they deserve.
‘In addition, the current COVID-19 crisis highlights the need to consider carefully how any new legislation or regulations would retain flexibility to ensure councils and providers can safely respond to crises while keeping children’s best interests at the heart of all decision making.’
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