Former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has raised alarm bells about the treatment of children and young people in secure settings.
Ms Longfield, who stepped down from her role this month, has written to Vicky Ford MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Children and Families, Lucy Frazer QC MP, Minister of State, Ministry of Justice and Nadine Dorries MP, Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health regarding concerns about children in living in secure accommodation, particularly those in inpatient mental health wards and youth custody.
The government has been asked what their plans are for ensuring vulnerable children in secure settings have access to education in person, family visiting, and time outside.
“Since the start of the pandemic, I have raised serious concerns about the care of children living in secure accommodation, particularly those in inpatient mental health wards and youth custody,” said Ms Longfield. “In the first lockdown, many of these children were forced to go months without seeing their families or loved ones or receiving face to face education. In youth custody children were in some cases only spending an hour or two a day out of their cells. I was deeply shocked by this situation and raised immediate concerns with the government, Youth Custody Service and the NHS.”
Significant improvements have thus ensued in the national approach throughout subsequent lockdowns across different secure settings:
NHS England has confirmed that all children in inpatient care should still receive family visits.
The Department for Education guidance is clear that hospital schools should continue to provide face to face education.
The Youth Custody Service has stated that all children are entitled to receive family visits (albeit with a preference for virtual visits), and to receive face to face education.
However, Ms Longfield remains concerned about what is happening in practice:
Mental health inpatient wards have reported struggles to ensure that their education providers continue to provide on-ward, in-person provision, due to concerns about infection risk. The Youth Custody Service reports significant barriers to providing education, and this has a knock-on effect on children’s time out of cell. One barrier was that children in custody were not included on the ‘vulnerable’ list of children which sets out clearly which children have a right to face to face education during the pandemic, yet there was no mention of them in DfE guidance, unlike children attending hospital schools.
The Department for Education has a responsibility towards all children, including those in custody, and must ensure that in the event of any further lockdowns, they are as able as other children to access adequate levels of education, warns Ms Longfield.
Children in custody are firstly being offered video calls, which is not an adequate substitution for in person visits for those children who prefer face to face contact. The actual number of in-person visits available is limited.
“It is unacceptable if a child is unable to see their parent because there is insufficient cover for absent or unwell staff,” added Ms Longfield.
Children are increasingly spending time alone in their cells, particularly at the weekend, with the average time out of cell on weekends as low as 2 hours 30 minutes.
“These children are already some of the most vulnerable in the country. Ensuring that they can maintain their relationships with their families, and access education and rehabilitation support, is urgently required. I look forward to an update on your plans for ensuring vulnerable children in secure settings have access to education in person, family visiting, and time outside (and time out of cell for those in custody), as well as how any practical barriers around staffing will be addressed as national restrictions are relaxed,” concluded Ms Longfield.
Meanwhile, the new children’s commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza has pledged “a lot of listening, and then action”.
The former headteacher said: “We know the challenges – the human cost of the pandemic; the bereavement; rising rates of domestic abuse; vulnerable children; estrangement; children in care or specialist units; children with SEND; a mental health epidemic; social inequality; regional inequality; rising unemployment; economic restructuring. recession; the conflicts between more austerity and a reduction in public services, and more debt which could be passed on to our children; access to further education; access to opportunity. The list is long, and in every particular, children’s futures are on the line.”
In particular, Dame de Souza said she wants to hear previously unheard voices, from minority or vulnerable groups of course, as well as those whose identity may fall between definitions which might confer a particular need or disadvantage.
“During my tenure, I want my work to improve the chances of every single child, whatever their early standing in life, wherever they are, from the inner city to the most remote corner of every county in England,” Dame de Souza concluded.
Children in custody in lockdown