Review of children’s residential care

Article 39 congratulated our friends at Every Child Leaving Care Matters yesterday, when their sustained lobbying for Staying Put for 18 year-olds leaving children’s homes was officially recognised by Sir Martin Narey’s review into residential care. Staying Put is the term given to young people’s right to stay in their foster home until the age of 21, introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014. Young people leaving children’s homes have no equivalent right.

Sir Martin does not recommend that all 18 year-old care leavers be entitled to stay in their care placement until the age of 21, but instead argues for significantly increased support (subject to funding). He also urges Ministers to work with leading figures in Every Child Leaving Care Matters, who are care leavers themselves, in introducing this new support. This is a great step forward.

There are other findings in the report which should bring new and increased respect for residential care, including recognition of the very positive role it can play in supporting children to live in families (when this is best for them and concurs with their own wishes and feelings).

However, other observations and conclusions in the Narey Review present potential risks to children’s rights.

First, Sir Martin recommends the Department for Education consider how to encourage “the voluntary and private sector to enter the secure care market”. All but one of the country’s 14 secure children’s homes are run by local authority children’s services; the other is run by a charity and legislation already permits not-for-profit organisations to manage such homes. So this recommendation seems principally about enabling profit-making in secure children’s homes. There is no acknowledgement in the report of the chequered history of private companies running other locked establishments, including the serious abuse allegations at G4S-run Medway secure training centre, which have so far led to 11 arrests and the multinational selling its UK children’s business.

Second, there is a recommendation that the Department for Education, in consultation with Ofsted, “reconsider their guidance” about the use of physical restraint and locked doors in children’s homes. The guidance is presently very clear that there may be occasions when restraint can be lawful and justified to prevent a child leaving a children’s home. This advice is longstanding, and can be traced back to guidance on permissible forms of control in children’s residential care, dated 1993. That was introduced because of fear and uncertainty over discipline, following the abolition of corporal punishment in children’s homes in 1991. Recent guidance, like that issued in 1993, also makes clear, “The locking of external doors, or doors to hazardous materials, may be acceptable as a security precaution if applied within the normal routine of the home”. In a section on pedagogy, Sir Martin refers to Derbyshire children’s homes “apparently” reducing the use of physical intervention “to the point where they are said to have all but disappeared”. Article 39 hopes that any initiative by the DfE and Ofsted to examine the use of restraint and locked doors in children’s homes learns from positive, non-coercive practice. The Medway Improvement Board’s recent report on G4S-run Medway secure training centre will also be relevant, since it eloquently makes the case for moving away from coercion.

Third, the Review encourages local authorities and others “to be cautious about following any hard and fast rule about placement distance and to recognise that the right placement for a child is more important than location”. This sentiment is already reflected in law, so the risk is that this recommendation could undermine recent efforts to ensure children are placed as close to their home ties and communities as possible, when this promotes and safeguards their welfare.

Fourth, the Review accuses the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Prison Reform Trust of exaggerating the criminalisation of children in care. Sir Martin has undertaken some useful factual checks which indicate, for example, that the police are not always called out for misbehaviour but also for welfare reasons. However, we believe he missed an obvious and important opportunity to explore the potential for residential care staff having colleagues specifically trained in de-escalation to call in during crises, which could then avert police officers being brought to homes.

Finally, we are disappointed that Sir Martin has the impression that children’s rights are associated with “indulgence” and inexpert care. There is consistent acknowledgment in the Review of child abuse and mistreatment in residential care in the past. What is missing, however, is an awareness of the pivotal role that respect for children’s rights has played in transforming children’s homes from the often bleak, regimented and cruel institutions of the past to the positive, nurturing homes of today.