What’s the point of children complaining?

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) published a short report yesterday (10 March) giving the results of its survey of councils about the children’s social care complaints procedure. It includes five case studies where complaints were not investigated or resolved properly by local authorities. One of the complaints came from a 17 year-old girl who ran away from home because of abuse by her father. Children’s services refused to help her, telling her to return home or stay with a friend. It failed to follow its legal duties to assess her as a ‘child in need’ or provide her with accommodation as a ‘looked after’ child. The girl made a complaint under the Children Act 1989 procedure, and received two apologies – though no response to the main issue, which was the lack of support provided by the council. With the help of an advocate, the girl contacted the Local Government Ombudsman and her complaint was upheld.

Councils taking part in the LGO survey reported that the majority of individuals using the statutory complaints procedure are adults, not children. The LGO reports that many councils see this ‘as evidence that the process isn’t supporting the people it was designed to benefit’. More than 20 years after the statutory procedure was introduced, partly in response to the children’s homes abuse revelations of previous decades, this is a very depressing finding. It shows local authorities still have a great deal to do to inform children of the procedure; reassure them their complaints will be dealt with swiftly and fairly; and to ensure that complaints are an effective mechanism for identifying where the law is not being upheld, and quickly rectifying this. Even with the assistance of an advocate, the 17 year-old in the case study was unable to obtain the support from social care she is legally entitled to and had to take her complaint to the LGO. What a disincentive to other children. The LGO observes that ‘some question the best use of public funds when costs for [the independent element of social care complaints] can run into thousands of pounds for each complaint’. In human terms, the cost to extremely vulnerable children of not receiving the protection and services to which they are entitled can be devastating, as recent reviews in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire make clear.

Since April 2014, the Children’s Commissioner for England has been empowered to give advice and assistance to children living away from home and receiving social care services in England. The advice line is open weekdays 9am to 5pm: 0800 528 0731.

No signature on secure college contracts urges Howard League

Frances Crook, the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, has today (12 February) written to the Cabinet Secretary seeking his assurance that no contracts for secure colleges will be signed this close to the general election. Crook lists some of the many organisations opposing the plans, noting ‘The Ministry of Justice has been unable to find the support of any individual or expert organisations for the proposals’.

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is due to receive Royal Assent today. It establishes a new type of child prison, the ‘secure college’. The first is planned to be built on the grounds of Glen Parva, an adult prison in Leicestershire. It will hold 320 children, making it one of the largest child prisons in Europe.

Preparations for the new East Midlands prison go back several years, to the last Labour government, though originally it was to hold 360 boys aged 15 to 17 and it would have been called a ‘young offender institution’ like other prisons for children and young adults. The ‘secure college’ branding came with the announcement that children as young as 12, and both boys and girls, would be detained in the Leicestershire prison.

The Labour Party opposed the controversial plans as the Bill went through Parliament. Strong opposition in the Lords, led by the cross-bencher and former chief inspector of prisons Lord David Ramsbotham, resulted in a government concession that girls and children aged 14 and under would not be imprisoned in any secure college without the express agreement of both the Commons and the Lords at some future date.

Peers failed to remove provisions in the Bill empowering custody officers to use force on children to ensure good order and discipline. Similar powers given to officers in G4S and Serco secure training centres were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 2008 as they were deemed unnecessary and a breach of children’s human dignity.
Read Crook’s letter here.

Child in police cell for 44 hours with no food or water

The report of a child protection inspection of Nottinghamshire police, published today (11 February), reveals a 16 year-old girl was held in police cells for 52 hours before being taken to hospital. It was only after 44 hours had passed that police officers realised the child had been given no food or water. A paramedic treated the girl before her transfer to hospital. She was one of 11 children detained by Nottinghamshire police under mental health legislation between June 2013 and May 2014. Inspectors described the custody suite as being ‘imposing and an unsuitable environment in which to safeguard a vulnerable child’.

Last week, the Home Affairs Committee in Parliament backed a change to the law to prevent police cells ever being used as a place of safety for poorly children, a move which also has the backing of the Home Secretary Theresa May.

Read the inspection report.

Have your say about children’s homes

Ofsted, the organisation that inspects children’s services, is asking children and young people who live in children’s homes to give their views about the care they receive. Children and young people should be given the link to the online survey from their children’s home.  You can also contact Ofsted directly on 0300 123 1231 or enquiries@ofsted.gov.uk.

The survey runs until 4 May 2015. Children and young people in foster care are also encouraged to give their views.