Call for government guidance to keep children safe in institutional settings

Article 39 has today (15 December 2021) published new research on allegations made against adults working in children’s institutional settings (boarding and residential schools, children’s homes, immigration detention, mental health inpatient units and prisons) in England between 2018/19 and 2020/21, and the action taken by local authorities.

Awareness of child abuse within institutional settings has steadily grown since the 1980s. But it would be a mistake to perceive institutional child abuse as historical, as a problem of the past. Just two months ago, after visiting Oakhill secure training centre, a child prison run by G4S, Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons and the Care Quality Commission issued an urgent notification stating that children had been subject to unlawful use of force and that conditions in this child prison “barely met minimum standards of human decency” during the summer. Child protection concerns were not being referred to the local authority, in breach of statutory safeguarding guidance. Extremely serious revelations of children in care living in unregulated accommodation suffering significant harm continue to be revealed, including by our own research released today.

These continuing scandals show how essential it is that we know when allegations of abuse against children are raised in institutional settings and what action (if any) is taken as a result. Yet there is no central collection and publication of data on this. Article 39’s research, drawing on responses to freedom of information requests sent to local authorities in England, found that:

  • 64 local authorities recorded 6,106 allegations against adults working in children’s institutional settings between 2018 and 2021, an average of 32 allegations per year per local authority.  
  • Child prisons had the greatest number of allegations against staff in proportion to the number of children – with 1,305 allegations made over three years (355 in 2020/21) in just five institutions (young offender institutions and secure training centres). 
  • Last year, one local authority received 184 allegations against staff in one secure training centre even though it has capacity to hold fewer than 90 children. 
  • The greatest number of total allegations from institutional settings related to adults working in children’s homes (2,900 allegations over 3 years).
  • There were 334 allegations against adults working in semi-independent/independent accommodation over 2018 to 2021, though this is likely to be a significant under-estimate. Several local authorities explicitly stated that they do not collect data on abuse allegations in semi-independent/independent accommodation. Two local authorities only gave a partial answer in respect of these unregulated properties where children in care do not receive any care or consistent adult supervision. If we added the number of section 47 child protection enquiries they told us they undertook in respect of these properties, this would bring the total number of allegations in this type of setting to 445 (data from 66 local authorities). 
  • Several local authorities stated that they do not collect data on allegations of abuse in mental health inpatient care.  
  • Of the local authorities which provided the relevant information, only 11% of abuse allegations led to child protection enquiries under the Children Act 1989, legislation which is intended to protect all children. 

Kamena Dorling, Article 39’s Head of Policy and Advocacy, said: 

“Children in closed institutions often have limited or no contact with family members, and it is vital that there is sufficient oversight of how they are treated. Yet, Article 39’s research has found that there is still no uniform process for local authorities recording and reporting data on institutional abuse and neglect allegations and outcomes. Without this, it is impossible to gather the vital local intelligence needed about individual establishments to ensure the safety of children living there.” 

Article 39 urges the Department for Education to routinely collect and publish data on abuse allegations and outcomes relating to all children’s institutional settings and for cross-departmental statutory guidance on keeping children safe in all institutional settings to be drafted as a matter of urgency.

This is Article 39’s second examination of abuse and neglect allegations in institutional settings in England. Our first report was published in November 2017 (available here).