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Concern over locked-up 'invisible children'

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There could be more than 200 “invisible” children locked away in secure units whose whereabouts and length of incarceration are not captured in official statistics, a report by the Children’s Commissioner for England has found.

In her report Who Are They? Where Are They? Children living behind closed doors, Anne Longfield says an estimated 211 children were deprived of their liberty in 2017-18 following court applications by councils after it was decided that a parent or child could not provide valid consent.

The Ministry of Justice was able to tell the commissioner that 89 children aged 16-18 were on deprivation of liberty applications to the Court of Protection during 2017-18 however it was unable to provide details of applications for children under 16 through the Family Court. The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service said 122 children under 16 were the subject of such an application during 2017-18.  

However, there is no further information on the individuals’ circumstances, where they were placed or whether the applications were granted while analysis from the Department of Health & Social Care suggests only between four and 12 applications for 16-18-year-olds were made to the Court of Protection, significantly lower than the 89 children identified by the MoJ. 

“We have not been able to discover the reason for this discrepancy,” the report said.

Ms Longfield is calling for councils to provide data to her office, Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission on the number of children deprived of their liberty, the legal basis for that and where they are living.

She added: “Locking children up is an extreme form of intervention. We are spending millions of pounds on these packages of care and yet there is far too little oversight of why they are there, their journeys into this system and the safeguards in place to protect them once they are there.”

The report found there were 1,465 children securely detained in England in 2018 where court proceedings had not been required as a parent, or child themselves if aged 16 or 17, had been able to consent. Of these 873 were held in youth justice settings, 505 were in mental health wards and 87 were in secure children’s homes. The cost of looking after these children is about £300m a year.

The report adds that there is no standard guidance for councils about when to seek a deprivation of liberty authorisation. In 2017, the Law Commission found residential specialist schools make regular requests to councils for them to apply for a deprivation of liberty “but the majority have had no response, leaving them in a precarious legal position”.

“This would mean that there are children who are being deprived of their liberty, but where no legal safeguards are in place – in that case the figures we have been provided with could be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true number of children deprived of their liberty,” the report said.




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