Tougher stance on detaining young offenders: Minister orders social services inquiry after teenage absconder dies in car crash

AN INQUIRY into social services in Birmingham has been ordered by Tim Yeo, the Under-Secretary for Health, following the death of a 14-year-old girl in a stolen car after she absconded from a children's home.

Mr Yeo will announce new national guidelines today to reassure social workers they can restrain young offenders in secure units and lock them in, in certain circumstances.

The death of Sally Ann Cattell in a 60mph police car chase last month heightened concern about the number of absconders from children's homes and local authority units for young offenders.

Earlier this week, Mr Yeo expressed alarm at reports that Birmingham social services had downgraded the level of security in which young people were held. He wrote to the social services committee of the Labour-controlled Birmingham City Council to demand an urgent review into its decisions over the past 12 months, 'with a view to considering whether your policies and procedures need to be changed or reinforced with the staff operating them'.

He said: 'It would be helpful if the report could be sent to the Social Services Inspectorate within the next three months.'

Sally Ann was driving the car. Two boys, aged 16 and 17, survived the crash and have subsequently appeared in court. All three were in the care of Birmingham social services at the St John Children's home in Erdington.

Earlier, one of the boys had been held in a security unit to be visited by the Department of Health Social Services Inspectorate next month.

Mr Yeo said he was surprised that the social services committee, after reviewing Sally Ann's case, appeared prepared to 'let the matter rest'. He said that there were a 'number of very disturbing features which require further action'.

Sally Ann's case notes show she was a frequent absconder at Athelstan, her previous home. Earlier reports from another home raised fears that when she was absconding, Sally Ann was mixing with older people, some of whom were involved in crime, prostitution and drug abuse.

Between July and October 1992, she absconded overnight four times and was twice missing for several days. Both the boys involved in the theft of the car, a high-performance Metro, had been in secure accommodation. Mr Yeo said: 'I am extremely concerned that the level of supervision was not vigorously enforced.'

The new guidelines are intended to answer demands for a tougher regime for young offenders held in care. Since the so-called 'pin-down' scandal, in which children in care were abused, social workers have been wary of using restraint.

The guidelines will tell social workers the extent of their powers and will make it clear that they can use reasonable force to stop young people leaving secure units.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, will introduce legislation in November to give courts powers to send young offenders to a new generation of secure units, run by private firms or voluntary bodies. But ministers privately believe that existing homes will retain a central role.

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