Homes to be allowed to lock children up: Social workers to be given powers to prevent crimes

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The Government is to announce tougher guidelines next week to deal with difficult youngsters in children's homes, which will include giving social workers powers to use physical restraint.

The announcement by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, is an attempt by ministers to answer continuing public concern about rising crime. She believes the local authority homes should do more to stop children in their care from committing serious crimes.

There was a renewed outcry last week when a 14-year-old girl in care was killed driving a stolen car after a high-speed police chase. The guidelines will make it clear that restraint may be used in cases where there is reason to believe that the young person will do harm to him or herself, to others or to property.

Social workers will be told that they can restrain youngsters by locking them in at night. But in extreme cases, they may also use immediate physical restraint, if verbal warnings have proved inadequate. Social workers have been wary of using physical restraint since the 'pin-down' controversy in Staffordshire, where four homes were found to have operated a regime, involving solitary confinement, which was 'unethical, unprofessional and unacceptable'.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, announced on 2 March that a new generation of secure schools for persistent juvenile offenders would be established, but that will take some years.

A senior Whitehall official said: 'It is a question of striking the right balance. Social workers know what they should not do, but they don't know what they can do, if they can act to prevent a child injuring himself, others or property.

'The guidance will say restraint is allowed if they have reason to believe that will happen.'

A court was forced to admit yesterday that the law cannot contain a teenager dubbed 'ratboy' who preyed on pensioners then hid from the police in the air ducts of a Newcastle upon Tyne housing estate.

Despite a nationwide search for secure accommodation for the 13-year- old there was nowhere else to send him but an open centre from which he has already absconded. He has escaped from care more than 30 times in the past three years.