Commissioner for England says children at risk of ‘abuse or exploitation’ as thousands are sent to unregulated care homes due to COVID-19

Thousands of the most vulnerable children have been sent to unregulated care homes during the pandemic.  The number of children in need has soared during the COVID crisis and council leaders say there is nowhere else to place those most at risk as there are not enough places in regulated care homes.  Therefore young people are being placed in supported living facilities which are not monitored by Ofsted.

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said the children’s care system had been “left to slip deeper into crisis” during the last year leaving children at risk of “abuse or exploitation.”

Unregulated homes, often known as supported accommodation for over 16s, are not inspected by a regulator.  They are permitted in law because they offer support not care and young people housed there live semi-independently.  But critics say they are unsuitable due to the lack of checks to monitor them.  Children, who are in some cases under 16 when placed in these settings, are more at risk to exploitation from abusers or drug gangs.

Despite calls for use of these homes to be banned some concerning facts include that:

  • Last year at least 8,373 children were placed in unregulated accommodation.  More than one third of these placements were out of the local authority area meaning children were sent miles away in an unregulated setting. 
  • The figure, despite being an incomplete year, is higher than numbers from 2018-19.
  • Speaking anonymously, council commissioners of children’s services warned that private regulated providers were unwilling to take the most difficult young people due to the impact on their Ofsted rating.
  • Councils are being forced to set up their own regulation of these homes sending officers to visit them but the amount of checks in place varies across the country.

The Children’s Commissioner said many unregulated providers were private companies making a huge profit off vulnerable children.  She said the pandemic was likely to plunge more young people into care putting “pressure on already very stretched local authority budgets.”  She is calling for the government to ban under-18s in care from being placed in unregulated accommodation and to launch the independent review into children’s social care promised in the Conservative manifesto.

This was echoed by Katherine Sacks-Jones, chief executive of children in care and care leavers charity Become, who said: “With growing numbers of children in the care system and more entering at an older age and with complex needs, today’s statistics from the Department for Education demonstrate once again that the system is no longer fit for purpose and, why the government must urgently bring forward its promised review of the care system.”

A government spokesperson said it had invested £40m in secure children’s homes to support councils to meet this duty with an extra £24m confirmed in November last year.  They said this alongside their independently-led care review, would support improvements.  The government is yet to announce when the review will commence.

Catherine Davey is an Associate at BLM

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