The use of unregulated accommodation for under 18s in care should be banned, the Children's Commissioner's Office has said following an investigation into vulnerable children in care living in semi-independent accommodation.
The change would see all children in care who need a residential placement housed in accommodation regulated under the same standards as children's homes, and would put an end to 16 and 17-year-olds being placed in bedsits, hostels and caravans.
The call from the Children's Commissioner's Office follows the publication of its report' Unregulated: Children in care living in semi-independent accommodation' which suggests thousands of children in care are living in independent or semi-independent accommodation.
According to the report, the investigation uncovered stories of children with mental health, self-harm or drug issues who became victims of exploitation and abuse while living in unregulated accommodation. Some providers were also found to be avoiding DBS checks.
The report claims that the settings are not inspected, and accommodation can range from a flat to a hostel or bedsit, "and in the worst cases caravans, tents and in one case even a barge".
In some cases, the Commissioner's Office found that councils are paying up to £9,000 per week to private providers who are providing "poor quality accommodation" and support to vulnerable children.
One in eight children in care spent time in an unregulated placement in 2018-19, the report says. Due to the lack of capacity in children's homes, that number is increasing.
The government recently banned the use of unregulated accommodation for under 16s, but the Commissioner says the ban needs to be extended to all vulnerable children. The Commissioner's report called for five changes:
- The use of semi-independent and independent provision to be made illegal for all children in care.
- Urgent action to be taken to increase capacity across the care system.
- Clarification of what care looks like for children of different ages, including older teens.
- Regulation of unregulated settings – to ensure quality for young adults in these settings.
- Strengthening the role of Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs).
Responding to the Children's Commissioner, Cllr Judith Blake, Chair of the Local Government Association's Children and Young People Board, said that ensuring young people in care and care leavers are able to live in good quality homes is a key priority for councils. However, "as the number of children in care has increased year on year, it has become increasingly difficult to find suitable children's home accommodation for all of the children who need it".
Blake added: "This is undoubtedly driving the increasing use of unregulated and unregistered accommodation.
"It is vital that the government urgently takes action to increase the availability of homes for young people with complex or challenging needs and provides funding and support to councils to ensure that they are able to give these young people the safe, nurturing homes they deserve.
"In addition, the current COVID-19 crisis highlights the need to consider carefully how any new legislation or regulations would retain flexibility to ensure councils and providers can safely respond to crises while keeping children's best interests at the heart of all decision making."
Jenny Coles, President of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said a blanket ban on the use of independent or semi-independent settings for under 18s would remove the flexibility to support young people.
Coles 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.
"This is different to it being used in emergency situations after a placement breakdown or when no other placement can be found for a child with very complex needs. 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. The government has committed to undertaking a review of the care system and this must commence as soon as possible so these issues can be addressed."
Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England, said: "The Government has proposed cleaning up the unregulated sector by introducing new minimum standards, but this does not address the real problem – allowing children under 18 to be placed in this accommodation in the first place.
"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. Ultimately it is the 1 in 8 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."
Longfield added: "Every parent wants their children to have stable, secure homes with access to the support and care they need. Nobody would willingly put their own child in the sort of places and situations that this report highlights.
"This is about the basic standards of care we provide to children looked after by the state: a safe and secure place to live and proper support to help with the challenges they face. This is the minimum we would expect for every child, yet there are 12,000 children in England looked after by the state for whom these standards do not apply. That is why the law must change so that all looked after children who need a residential placement are housed in accommodation regulated under the same standards as children's homes."