Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield is calling for the government to make it illegal to place under 18s in care in unregulated homes.
The plea comes as the commissioner published a report, Unregulated: Children in care living in semi-independent accommodation, revealing how thousands of children in care are living in unregulated independent or semi-independent accommodation.
Figures showed that one in eight children in care spent some time in unregulated placements in 2018-19.
The increased use of unregulated accommodation is being driven by pressures on council budgets, an increase in the number of teenagers entering care and a lack of suitable placements for them, forcing local authorities to become overly reliant on poor quality unregulated accommodation.
‘The government has set out a commitment to ban the use of semi-independent and independent provision for under 16s – a decision which the Children’s Commissioner fully supports. But this policy does not go far enough,’ the report said.
It also stated that, even the very few 16 and 17 year olds who feel they are ready to start becoming more independent are likely to need a level of assistance that meets the threshold for care, rather than support.
‘Every child and young person has different needs, and an individual child’s needs may fluctuate over time – a child may feel that they are able to live semi-independently some of the time, but is likely to need a high level of care at other times,’ it added. ‘They cannot currently access that higher level of care in unregulated provision, without the setting becoming an unregistered children’s home.’
The rise in increased use of unregulated accommodation is also attributed to a lack of capacity in children’s homes, which the report is calling on the government’s forthcoming Care Review to address.
‘Councils have experienced overall budget cuts of 29% since 2010 and in 2018-19 they overspent their budgets for children’s social care by £770m. A significant programme of investment is urgently needed,’ the report said.
Longfield said: ‘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,’ she said.
‘Ultimately it is the one in eight 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.’
Jenny Coles, Association of Directors of Children’s Services president, said: ‘Independent or semi-independent provision can be the right thing and placement of choice for some young people when it is used as part of a planned process as a stepping stone to independence with a support plan in place.
‘A blanket ban on the use of these settings for under 18s would remove the flexibility we currently have to support young people in their journey to increased independence. It would also further exacerbate the sufficiency challenges local authorities are currently grappling with.’
Children’s Minister Vicky Ford said: ‘This government has made it clear that every child in care deserves to be safe and secure and we are taking steps to drive up the quality of care provided to vulnerable children.
‘There are no circumstances where a child under 16 should be in accommodation that does not keep them safe – that’s why we have consulted on ambitious proposals to ban them from being placed in unregulated accommodation. We have also consulted on how to enforce new national standards for providers to drive up quality, keeping young people safer and delivering better outcomes.
‘In some circumstances, semi-independent accommodation can be the right choice for 16 and 17 year-olds as they move towards adult life, but only when it is of high quality and meets their needs.’
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