“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.”
A Child Called “It”
In 2019 Children in Kent were placed in unregulated homes more than 1,000 times in three years, more than anywhere else in the country. By the beginning of July 2021, the number of Kent County Council (KCC) children placed into unregulated homes had more than doubled to 2,369 times a Shepway Vox investigation has found.
These vulnerable children looked after by KCC have been placed in unregulated care settings as far afield as Newcastle, Lincolnshire, Isle of Wight and Bristol at a cost of millions to KCC taxpayers, our investigation has discovered.
The Children Commissioner’s Dec 2019 report – Pass-the-parcel makes it clear children and young people who are placed in unregulated accommodation; which is NOT monitored by Ofsted, are at significant risk of “abuse or exploitation“. Yet since the Children Commissioner’s report KCC have continued to place children into unregulated accommodation.
Unregulated accommodation is allowed and is within the law because it offers support as opposed to care, and young people housed there live semi-independently. To put this into plain English, care is not provided 24/7. Critics say such unregulated accommodation is unsuitable due to the lack of checks to monitor children aged 16 and 17. However, we discovered in the course of our investigation that 58 children in the care of KCC were under 16 when placed into unregulated accommodation. Given the age of these children, one can only assume they would be at significant risk of exploitation from abusers or drugs gangs, particularly given the local issues in the boroughs they have been placed in.
The Shepway Vox investigation based on data from KCC reveals that despite calls for use of these homes to be banned by the Children’s commissioner:
At least 2,369 KCC children have been placed in semi-independent accommodation – in the last five years. More than a 25% of these placements (621) were out of the Kent area, meaning children were sent over 300 miles away to unregulated accommodation.
Speaking anonymously, a KCC social worker said,
“Due to a shortfall of foster carers in Kent, our most vulnerable children are being placed, outside of Kent, many miles away from family and friends.”
They went onto to say
When I first went into Social Work it was about preventative work, however due to ten plus years of austerity, we now only intervene when families are in crisis.
The system of housing vulnerable children has broken down, and KCC have no other options but to use this unregulated market, at great and growing cost.
KCC have according to Sarah Hammond, the director of children’s social services at Kent county council, set up their own form of regulation on these homes, sending their own officers to undertake inspections of the accommodation for looked-after children before contracts are signed.
Unregulated placement costs have risen by 42% in the last four financial years and there is no indication this will slow down.
Children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield said many unregulated providers were private companies making a huge profit off vulnerable children – in KCCs case, average costs are in the region of £5,400 per week, per child – without the checks and balances that are seen in regulated care settings.
“Three-quarters (73%) of unregulated provision is privately run, and this part of the care sector is fast expanding. The financial opportunity presented can attract entrants to the market that know little or nothing about the care of children, with the upshot that, in some settings, children are not kept safe.” Children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield
In 2020/21 alone, the cost of unregulated accommodation cost KCC £5.8 million. Since 2017/18, costs have risen by 42%.
But financial costs of unregulated accommodation is one thing, the cost to children whose placements are not suitable more often than not, causes instability and trauma for the child moved. In the last five years nearly 3,000 placement breakdowns of KCC children have taken place, sometimes as often as three or more times in one year. The cost of the personal trauma to these KCC vulnerable children cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence.
At present it is the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 which govern the types of placements where KCC can place a child. These make provision for different types of placements. Most placements made by KCC are in locations which are registered with either Ofsted or the Care Quality Commission and hence operate under a regime which is regulated by a government quality assurance body and are subject to regular inspections. It is unlawful to provide health or care services without being registered with CQC, but it is not necessarily unlawful for an operator of a service providing accommodation for children to be registered with Ofsted.
However the 2010 Regulations does not prevent KCC placing children in “unregulated accommodation”. That said, there is strict criteria they have to follow when placing a looked after child into unregulated accommodation.
On the 9th Sept 2021, the 2010 Regulations will lapse and new Regs will come into force. The effect of the 2021 Regulations is that a placement by a local authority in an unregulated setting will not be lawful for any looked after child who is under 16 years of age. Given that KCC placed 58 children under 16 into unregulated accommodation creates an immediate problem for them. The 2021 Regs will automatically apply to all existing placements, as well as new placements made by KCC social workers in the future. Any child under 16 as of the 9th Sept who are presently in unregulated settings must be moved to a regulated setting. Whether KCC have found any placements for these children is not yet known, but we hope they have it hand. That said what are KCC to do if there are no appropriate placements available for these children under 16?
Under s22G of the Children Act 1989, KCC like all other local authorities have a general duty to secure sufficient accommodation for looked after children. KCC have known since 2017 there were not enough regulated placements. As such, they knew there was a shortfall in regulated accommodation and could have stepped into the market themselves to provide it instead of outsourcing their placements.
There are no easy answers for KCC and their social workers. Nor will it be easy for the children. However, we do offer up one solution which could help alleviate this crisis, that being people coming forward to be foster carers to enable a brighter future for these vulnerable children, who all to often have been passed around like a parcel, yet need stability if they are to become integrated functional members of our society.
The Shepway Vox Team
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