A shortage of secure placements is affecting the wellbeing of some of the UK’s most vulnerable children. A new research partnership is working with the sector to find out what needs to change.

Secure care is in crisis. A shortage of suitable placements means long waits for the support and stability vulnerable children and young people desperately need.

Many end up in inappropriate or unregistered settings that add to trauma and distress and make it harder for young people to move on with their lives.

Children entering secure care need to feel safe and form trusting relationships with adults to recover.

This is why it is time to rethink our approach to secure provision. To that end, a core group of three universities – Bournemouth University, Northumbria University and Leeds Beckett University – is working with fellow researchers, practitioners and other key players in the sector to gather evidence that can be used to improve secure care and outcomes for children.

Secure children’s homes are locked institutions for those aged 10 to 17. A child can enter secure care either on remand or sentence for a crime or on welfare grounds such as mental health issues that mean they need to be detained for their own safety.

There are 14 secure children’s homes in England and Wales –13 in England and one in Wales – although one is not currently operational. Of those that are up and running, two accommodate children solely on criminal justice grounds, six accommodate children on welfare grounds while the remaining five offer both types of placement.

Recent years have seen an increase in numbers of children and young people requiring secure care.

A report published by Ofsted in January this year found there were around 50 children waiting for a secure welfare place on any given day.

Demand is high but many secure homes are half empty. One reason for low occupancy rates is that the design of buildings – some of which have been re-purposed to provide secure care – no longer meet the needs of children.

Children are entering secure care at a young age and with more complex needs than ever before. Many are at risk of self-harm and older buildings don’t have the design features, such as non-breakable glass, to keep them safe.

The layout of buildings is also important especially when there are tensions – such as rival gang affiliations – that mean young people need to be kept apart.

Outdated, inflexible spaces can severely restrict a secure home’s ability to run at full capacity with the needs of existing residents making it harder to accommodate new young people safely.

Staffing shortages are another major issue with homes in isolated areas or places poorly-served by public transport experiencing significant difficulties recruiting staff. One home that took part in our research reported a vacancy rate of 40 per cent.

Homes that struggle to recruit cannot function at full capacity and often rely on agency staff, who may not have the training and skills to work in secure care.

Some agency staff are employed longer-term but those used to cover shifts irregularly have less opportunity to build positive relationships with young people and colleagues and a constant stream of new faces makes children feel unsettled.

The shortage of secure places means local authorities are turning to deprivation of liberty (DoL) orders, which have skyrocketed from about 100 in 2017/18 to just under 1,250 in the 12 months from July 2022 to June 2023.

In many cases, young people subject to DoL orders are placed in unregistered – and therefore unlawful – children’s homes. These placements are often a last resort meaning they are far from ideal and do not provide the intensive support children need to move forwards.

On the other side of the equation, there are also problems when young people leave secure care. If a child is to achieve the best outcomes from their stay, there needs to be a smooth transition back to their families and communities at the end of their placement.

However, there is a lack of “step-down” provision and a lack of planning for this key transition. Children are often sent to placements at the last minute with no opportunity to prepare for the move or for the placement to be properly assessed.

The data on the impact of secure care full stop is patchy partly because a lack of agreed aims – and linked outcome measures – for this type of provision.

Government and those working in children’s services are all too aware of the problems and the sector has received unprecedented attention from both policymakers and academics in recent years.

In 2021, the government announced £259m in funding for children’s homes in England and Wales, including money to refurbish existing secure children’s homes and develop new secure provision.

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has commissioned research to “re-imagine” secure care ahead of any plans for capital investment.

We have established the Children’s Residential Care Research Network with the aim of looking into key issues including the design of secure homes, step-down provision and planning, workforce, and the needs and lived experiences of children in secure settings.

We have already generated a large amount of data and evidence through analysis of existing datasets, multiple events with a range of stakeholders, focus groups with staff working in secure children’s homes, in-depth interviews with experts and visits to secure institutions.

And we have started to make recommendations in a number of areas including recommendations on the design and build of secure children’s homes.

Secure care workforce

Our research has also told us much about the secure care workforce. Residential care workers who took part have generally spoken very positively about their experiences.

They find their work enjoyable and rewarding and describe feeling a sense of personal fulfilment from seeing children progress.

They stress the importance of a strong team for managing day-to-day activities and as a source of support and camaraderie.

Staff feel one of the main barriers to attracting people to work in secure settings is the “hidden” nature of these institutions, which makes people feel like they would be entering the unknown.

Raising public awareness of the role of secure children’s homes and what it is like to work there could be a key factor in boosting recruitment.

In July 2022, children’s commissioner for England Dame Rachel de Souza published an action plan for reforming children’s homes, which stressed the need for provision to be as close to home as possible and for places to be available for as long as children need them.

Children should be “heard, seen and safe”, get education and mental health care and continue to get support on leaving.

De Souza also called for changes to section 25 of the Children Act 1989 to make the Secretary of State for Education responsible for ensuring sufficiency of welfare places within secure children’s homes.

Government investment in secure provision suggests there is a strong desire to build more homes that are designed to meet the needs of children.

There is also much support for the development of new homes across the sector – and among children’s services leaders and practitioners – who are faced with difficult decisions day to day and see the impact of sub-optimal placements. We have been working with local authorities, including councils in London, to incorporate our findings into plans for new provision.

Our findings show that safety and homeliness – often seen as two different sides of one coin – must be seen as compatible ideals.

In some homes, everyday items such as televisions are banned because of the risk of breakages but new technology allows for screens to be embedded in walls behind unbreakable glass.

This has the potential to look like high-spec design rather than an overt safety measure. Meanwhile, small changes like soft closing doors and key sensors can prevent the slamming of doors and jangling of keys that are so reminiscent of locked institutional settings.

Our research also highlights the importance of ensuring provision is flexible to meet the diverse needs of young people who require secure placements whether that is through a criminal justice or welfare route.

Moving on

Planning for moving on from secure provision should start as soon as a young person arrives with suitable step-down places available when needed.

Over the coming year we will be working with colleagues from all four UK nations to carry out research on staff working in secure care, focusing on recruitment, retention and wellbeing.

We are also planning an international project focusing on children’s lived experiences of secure care with colleagues in Scotland, the Netherlands and Australia.

At the same time, we will be analysing court decision-making processes and Ofsted reports to explore what best practice looks like from a regulatory perspective.

To move forwards, we need children’s services professionals to work together to re-imagine the potential of secure care.

We need space to enable dialogue and reflection and we need local authority directors and independent providers of children’s homes to share best practice.

We need greater integration between secure care providers and other residential homes to make the transition for children re-entering the community needs-led and smooth.

Systemic oversight of provision and allocation is needed to better match the demand and supply of placements.

Crucially, we need to be able to think beyond the existing institutional structures and consider what changes can be made to improve the experience for both children and staff.

  • Caroline Andow is a senior lecturer in criminology at Bournemouth University 

  • Find out more about the Children’s Residential Care Research Network at @CRCRNetwork or by emailing [email protected]

Michael’s story: I needed someone to talk to

Michael* experienced two residential care placements from the age of 16, spending just under a year in a secure children’s home before being transferred to a non-secure children’s home.

The only thing I liked about it is that I got my own room and privacy. You need your privacy, you need your own room.

People need their privacy to be their true selves because you can’t always be that person around everyone, you need that room to lock yourself away.

The home made me feel homely, how everything was laid out, the colours. Everything was in its spot where it should be.

Some young people’s mental health can be really bad – like mine. We would like more workers who are trained in mental health.

Some wait a long time to be assessed and it’s just going to get worse and worse and build up more. If they don’t have that person to talk to, they can end up in a bad situation.

Sometimes it’s just about being present. For example, you’re new into care, and you don’t really know the staff and you’re gaining their trust and they’re gaining yours.

It’s just about being there really, to have someone to talk to.

*Name changed

Proposed new secure provision in London will ensure children stay close to home 

By Jo Stephenson

Plans are under way to develop a new secure children’s home in London as part of efforts to tackle a shortage of suitable placements regionally and nationally.

The proposed facility in Waltham Forest, outer London, will provide 24 specialist welfare placements for children and young people with complex needs.

It will also include accommodation for up to four young people who no longer need to live in a secure environment but require extra support to move back into the community.

Currently, there is no service of this kind in London meaning children who need secure welfare placements are often placed far from home.

“Children are waiting several months for a placement and these are usually around 200 miles from the capital – far from their families, friends and other people that are important to them,” says Chris Munday, regional chair for commissioning and resources at the Association of London Directors of Children’s Services and executive director of children and families for the London Borough of Barnet.

“This distance also has a negative impact on the work we do to prepare children to leave secure care and settle back into the community.”

The project is backed by funding from the Department for Education through a national programme to boost secure children’s home places.

Local authorities in London will oversee the development and running of the proposed provision through a jointly owned not-for-profit company. Barnet is leading the design and construction phase of the project on their behalf.

The proposals would see the home built on part of a Thames Water depot, which some local residents have called to be turned into a community space and nature reserve. Local authority umbrella body London Councils said the location for the new secure home was selected following an assessment of multiple sites.

It said the plans were “sensitive and respectful of the surrounding area and local context” and stressed the local community and other key stakeholders are being consulted before a planning application is submitted.

“New secure welfare provision in London will help boroughs provide the right support at the right time to improve outcomes for London’s most vulnerable children,” says Munday.


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