Children’s Homes – Reform is on its way

In October 2011 the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (“OCC”) launched a two year inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups.  Following the conviction of nine men in Rochdale for their part in a child sex exploitation ring the Secretary of State for Education asked the OCC to expedite its report and in particular to make recommendations to improve the protection of children in residential care who may be at risk of sexual exploitation.

The report was published on 3 July 2012 and makes a number of findings which make rather disturbing reading for those who provide children’s services.  Indeed the newspaper headlines resulting from the report suggest that abuse is rife.

The report noted that not all children’s homes have staff who are suitably qualified or trained to identify child sexual exploitation and know to respond to it.  This is worrying given that research indicated that almost half of children placed in care are placed because they have been abused or neglected (albeit that this is not necessarily sexual in all cases); 45% of children live outside the local authority that has primary responsibility for them; and there is a lack of a national overview regarding the quality, specialism and geography of residential children’s homes.

Whilst the OCC accept that the majority of children who are sexually exploited are living in their family homes, there are a disproportionate number of children in care homes who are falling victim.

The OCC made a number of recommendations included:

  • the Government undertaking a thorough examination of residential care, including the profile of children, location and type of homes, recruitment, qualification and training of staff (essentially a complete overhaul).
  • regulation 33 visits should be undertaken by a person independent of the provider and either be appointed or approved by the local authority (it is unclear who would pay for this) .
  • children’s homes should not be opened in areas that present a high risk to children being placed there e.g check numbers of registered sex offenders in the area.
  • Amendment of legislation to allow Ofsted to share information about children homes’ locations with the police.
  • Where children run away, all return interviews involve an independent person.

The Government accepted all recommendations in full and are establishing two working groups – one to review and make recommendations on strengthening the regulatory framework on out of area placements and another to look at quality of children’s homes, including staff skills and use of restraint.

So where are Ofsted in all this?  By law, they are required to inspect children’s homes twice a year.  Traditionally, Ofsted has always been considered the weaker sibling of CQC.  Certainly here at Ridouts, whilst reviewing documentation, we have seen instances where Ofsted has not batted an eyelid to some practices which CQC would have come down on like a tonne of bricks.

In addition, in June 2012 a consultation was launched on revised safeguarding statutory guidance namely;

  • Working together to safeguard children: draft guidance on what is expected of organisations, individually and jointly, to safeguard and promote the welfare of children;
  • Managing individual cases: the framework for the assessment of children in need and their families: draft guidance on undertaking assessments of children in need; and
  • Statutory guidance on learning and improvement: proposed new arrangements for Serious Case Review, reviews of child deaths and other learning processes led by Local Safeguarding Children Boards

The idea behind these documents is to place more trust in the hands of professionals dealing with children and implementing locally agreed frameworks, rather than adhering to overly prescriptive national requirements – a move which is the reverse of  the calls being made in adult safeguarding matters.

There is certainly a renewed emphasis on child protection in recent months and this will continue as consultations close and recommendations implemented.  No doubt Ofsted will come back fighting but whatever happens it is clear that providers will have to demonstrate robust systems and procedures are in place to protect some of society’s most vulnerable.

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