The government is being urged to change the law to prevent local authorities placing under-18s in care in unregulated accommodation including bedsits, hostels and caravans.
The children’s commissioner for England wants to see all children in care who need a residential placement housed in accommodation regulated under the same standards as children’s homes.
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,” she added.
The children’s commissioner has published a report, ‘Unregulated: Children in care living in semi-independent accommodation’, which reveals that 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 warns.
The report reveals:
- One in eight children in care spent some time in an unregulated placements in 2018-19
- The number is increasing due to the lack of capacity in children’s homes and a belief that children aged just 16 should be ready to become independent.
- Some children reported high quality settings and good support from staff
- Others had 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,” said the report.
The government recognised the scale of the problem earlier this year and pledged 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.
However, the children’s commissioner believes that while the government’s commitment to reform is encouraging, the proposals do not go far enough to provide every child in care up to age 18 with the protection they need.
The report calls for:
- The use of semi-independent and independent provision to be made illegal for all children in care.
- Increased capacity across the care system, especially in the residential care sector.
- Clarification of what care looks like for children of different ages, including older teens.
- Strengthening the role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) who should visit placements prior to children being placed, in order to assess their suitability in a bid to prevent placement breakdown.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “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,” she concluded.