Teams from the Social Services Inspectorate visited 33 homes and 11 local authorities over five months - after prior warning. Standards of care ranged from excellent to unacceptably poor.
The homes chosen were intended to be representative of the 900 children's homes in England which now house mostly emotionally and physically damaged and disturbed adolescents while the majority of children in care are supervised at home or in foster homes.
One of the most serious problems was inappropriate use of sanctions and restraint 'such as arm locks and sitting on children until they became tired'.
Practices in some homes amounted to 'abuse'.
Asked what this meant, a spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'Physical restraint was being used too much and too soon without first trying to persuade the child not to do things.
'Practices included wrestling and grappling (putting arms around the child) and getting other children to help in the restraint, which should only be used by trained staff.'
In some homes sanctions were being used in breach of regulations. The department spokesman said these included: 'Practices which are probably corporal punishment, restriction or refusal of visits or communication, which seemed to be the most frequent sanction; requiring the child to wear distinctive or inappropriate clothing such as pyjamas; using accommodation to physically restrict liberty; and the imposition of fines and physical searches.'
Other problems highlighted in the report included: Total loss of control by staff confronted by violent and manipulative residents - in three homes teams had to take emergency action and report to the local senior managers that the home was out of control; failure to do police checks on new staff to establish criminal records; lack of privacy for the young people - many homes did not have private telephones, staff entered bedrooms without knocking, showers were communal and some lavatory doors had no locks; and despite the recent child care scandals many staff were not aware of the potential dangers of child abuse in the homes.
A major cause for concern was the high incidence of children being excluded from school and in future social services departments must liaise with education departments to ensure they receive a proper education, the report said.
Most children felt safe and cared for, although in five homes children said they did not feel safe in the company of staff, volunteers and visitors and three of the homes were regarded by inspectors as unsafe for both staff and children.
Conditions have improved since the Frank Beck sexual abuse scandal in Leicestershire homes and the 'pin-down' regime of control in Staffordshire, but there is still much bad practice and no guarantee that such scandals could not occur again, according to Herbert Laming, Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate.
Launching the report, Corporate Parents, Mr Laming said staff were dealing with adolescents who had had very disturbing experiences.
'Most staff who care for children do so under challenging circumstances,' he said.
'They need more support, supervision and training to do it well. Directors of social services should have in place adequate measures to monitor and control the quality of care in their children's homes.'
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