Unregistered homes put children at risk

Glenda Cooper reports on concern that establishments not subject to statutory checks can fall prey to sex abusers
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The Independent Online
Lack of registration in privately run children's homes means that sex abusers have been able to set up institutions, with local authorities often taking a "lax approach" to investigating them, according to the Social Services Inspectorate.

In a highly critical report on small children's homes - those that have less than four residents - the inspectorate revealed that 14 authorities did not even know they were sending children to such places. Other concerns included high fees and inexperienced staff, often unsupervised, dealing with disturbed children.

Only three months after the furore surrounding the White report in which Islington council was accused of leaving children at risk of abuse, the inspectorate said that in some small homes, it found fraudsters, and people subsequently convicted of sexual and physical abuse working there. At present, small homes do not have to register or carry out police checks.

"In all the cases ... however, local authority checks had not been sufficiently robust to prevent them from placing children in the care of these people," the report said.

Of the 109 local authorities questioned, 67 said that they did not currently use small homes, although a few reported they had used them in the past.

The remaining 42 authorities said they did place children in small homes, but only eight had clear regulatory procedures in place.

However, from a survey of the homes themselves, it became clear that 14 authorities which had said they did not use such homes were in fact currently sending children there. In most cases, when managers were questioned, it was claimed that children had been sent by individual social workers or local teams who did not refer the matter to senior staff.

At present, there are approximately 120 small homes in England and three in Wales, providing between them 250 places.

Of those departments which said they used small homes, 25 said the service was either mixed or poor quality, with only 17 saying it was good.

A total of 24 social services departments were concerned about how much training and experience staff had. Some homes were recruiting students without relevant qualifications or experience, many on part-time or short- term contracts which meant there was a high staff turnover.

Homes were also commanding high fees, with the norm being pounds 1,000 to pounds 1,500 a week, but in one case it was as high as pounds 3,000.

"Given the often large sums of public money involved, such a lax approach on the part of some authorities was a cause of substantial concern," the report said. "There is still an unacceptably high proportion of homes which do not achieve a satisfactory standard, which do not produce good results and which do not provide value for money ...

"As a result children are being placed by some local authorities in accommodation which, at the very least is unsuitable and in some cases is placing them at risk."

The Department of Health said that such homes were not registered because "they did not exist" when the Children Act was implemented in 1991, and that it was the "moral, professional and legal duty of local authorities" to ensure the safety of children in care.

Jan Burnell, director of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations, said that "vigorous and robust" registration and inspection processes was necessary.

"At present it is dependent on individual social workers in each case which is a bit too haphazard," she said.

"If 10 social workers have minor worries about a place added together they form a major worry, but under the present system they may never meet."

Brian Waller, chairman of the Association of Directors of Social Services committee on children and families, added that "deregulatory ideology was getting in the way of child care" and that a proper regulatory framework was necessary.

"We are really appalled the Government seems unwilling to do this," he said.

"The evidence sitting before us is that some children are at unacceptable levels of risk.

"We fear a tragedy waiting to happen."