1,500 children in England are locked up by the state

The Children’s Commissioner for England has published a report shining a light on the hundreds of children in England who are locked up in institutions across the country.

The report, Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up, collates all the data currently available about some of the most vulnerable children in England – those living in secure children’s homes, youth justice settings, mental health wards and other residential placements, either for their own safety or the safety of others.

It finds that there were 1,465 children in England securely detained in 2018, of whom 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.

It is estimated that we spend around £300 million a year on 1,465 children in England – excluding what we spend on those ‘invisible’ children whose settings we don’t have information about.

The Children’s Commissioner calls for local authorities to provide data to the Children’s Commissioner, 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.

Additionally, 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.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, 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.

“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.”

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.”