Prison that dangerous children call 'home' is to close

The small suburb of Anerley, in the south London borough of Bromley, is the epitome of commuter-belt tranquility: tree-lined streets, BMW X5s parked on the high street and half-hourly trains to central London.

Yet a few hundred yards from the station, tucked away at the back of William Booth Close, is Orchard Lodge, London's last secure children's home.

Its residents, boys aged between 12 and 16, fall into three categories. Some are there on welfare grounds, perhaps because they repeatedly self-harm; others are on temporary stay for remand purposes; and others still have been sentenced. The majority have usually committed terrible crimes: armed burglary, sexual abuse, rape, manslaughter, and even murder.

Opened in 1986 by boxer and local boy Henry Cooper, Orchard Lodge's pleasant campus spreads over six-and-a-half acres and combines grassy knolls with a series of inoffensive-looking buildings. An administration block caters for the 70 full-time staff; there's a concrete play area, a school with six classrooms and three secure units, each with eight bedrooms.

The 13 other similar homes around the country belong to local authorities. Orchard Lodge is privately owned.

Security is intense and unremitting. Contact with the children is heavily restricted, but The Independent was given access to facilities at the Lodge.

Staff members enter the secure area using a huge bunch of keys strapped around their waist. Visitors, including this correspondent, are instructed to leave all belongings outside – everything from wallet, phone and keys to pen and pad – because, according to Annette, the facilities manager, "they'll have them off you". There are security cameras and flashing alarms on ceilings, and a sign on each gateway between secure and unsecure areas that reads: "WARNING! Do not enter secure area if red light is flashing".

At lunchtime, extra standby staff patrol between the maths and art classrooms. Some of the kids are frustrated or hyped after a boring morning, and need to be restrained by staff before settling down for a plate of stew, chips, and salad. One of the younger children entertains his peers with card tricks, saying he's the next David Blaine.

The bedrooms, painted mauve, are 12ft by 10ft, with high ceilings. One contained typical teenage accoutrements: Playstation, small television, magazines. The atmosphere is thick with a sense of encroaching institutionalisation, although patient staff bring a tangible compassion to these young lives.

But despite their efforts, despite the exceptional needs of the young boys, and despite being the last secure home for children with such vulnerabilities in the capital, the Lodge will soon close. The Youth Justice Board (YJB) has announced that the Lodge's bid to re-tender this year has been unsuccessful. The Glen Care Group, a private firm which runs similar institutions around the country, and bought the Lodge from Southwark Council in March 2006, cannot afford to keep it open.

That means the 16 boys who live here will be transferred elsewhere in England, potentially as far as afield as Southampton or Nottingham, distancing them from their families and entrenching feelings of dislocation and detachment. The closure will entail redundancy for the army of committed carers. The Lodge's self-styled governor, a public servant named Dennis Scotland, feels "very, very downbeat".

"It came as a huge shock," he says, "because this is the last of its kind in London and you just didn't think they would consider it. The service was doing very well, and London needs these provisions. These boys are being packed off to far flung places, for nobody's good."

Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board, told The Independent that the number of beds required in secured children's homes had fallen from 219 to 191 this year, and that in a quality assessment exercise Orchard Lodge was one of four to come bottom.

"We offered transitional funding to them to focus on welfare," Miss Done said. "These places cost over £200,000 a year. We're doing all we can to look after vulnerable children, and minimise travel distances for families."

Mr Scotland, 50, has run Orchard Lodge since October. A father of three children (now grown-up), he has spent two decades working in residential services, for St Christopher's Fellowship, a children's charity and housing association, and as a youth worker in west London. His empathy with the boys is obvious. "There are a number of boys who get caught up in this not because they're bad boys but because these nasty situations are beyond their control. You meet them and you can't believe the crimes they've committed. Some are so sharp, and charming, and kind."

Many of the youngsters sent here self-harm viciously – "there's head-banging, cutting, that kind of thing" – and most have witnessed shocking brutality. One 12-year-old saw his brother's murder. Another received public exposure when he was convicted of involvement in a high-profile gang murder.

Sporting a bling watch and M&S Autograph suit, Mr Scotland is a role model to his residents, many of whom are, like him, black or from ethnic minorities. His authority is augmented by their knowledge of his own troubled childhood. Mr Scotland's mother died in childbirth, and his father committed suicide when he was three. Growing up on Durlston Road in Hackney, east London, he was raised by Jamaican foster parents but was a "demotivated, unsettled loner" at school. He was illiterate at 14. Four years in Jamaica, from 14 to 18, were, he says, his saving.

At a time when politicians talk of Britain's "broken society", Mr Scotland is sceptical of Westminster's glare. "Many of the boys here come from families where there is no structure, boundaries, or order. Some lived on estates where the pressure to join gangs is huge, and several have no father. But while family breakdown is an important factor, it's not the only factor. There are social currents in play, like communities with no resources.

"Politicians who talk about this stuff haven't enough on-the-ground understanding. They operate on another level, quoting all the figures. But to understand this stuff you have to feel it.

"We have a secure provision in London, the last one left, and they're letting us close, jeopardising these boys' future. The impoverished families of these boys are being told they have to go on a 200-mile trip if they want to see their sons. What's tough on crime or tough on the causes of crime about that?"

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