Report by Reshma Rumsey and Arij Limam
A not-for-profit campaign organisation is bringing a legal challenge against five local authorities in England over claims they are placing very high numbers of children in care outside of their local authority area. The Kent-based Good Law Project said while this “pressing problem” is a national issue, the ‘test case’ is a request for a judicial review issued against five of the worst-offending councils.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson is also being challenged for not stepping in to ensure local authorities are complying with their duty to ensure children in care are kept within their local area. The organisation said these “failures” are leaving children in care vulnerable to sexual exploitation, poor mental health, and county lines involvement. “Time and again local authorities are placing children in the cheapest accommodation, often far from home, and not the accommodation that best meets their needs”, said Gemma Abbott, Legal Director of Good Law Project.
What is the problem?
The Good Law Project says the challenge concerns the particular problem of 38% of children in care being placed outside the area of their local authority in 2020, with only 55% percent within the boundary of their area, and 7% not known. According to the organisation, recent figures also show the problem is particularly severe for children in residential care, with 70% of them housed out-of-area in 2020. The percentage of those placed within their council boundary has been steadily falling over the years, the organisation states, pointing to figures from 2019 when 58% were placed in-area, and 2012 when over 60% of all local authority placements were within their local authority’s boundary.
These figures are raising red flags given that the law states ‘looked after’ children should be accommodated in their own local authority’s area unless it would be inconsistent with their welfare to do so.
“The placement of children out-of-area, intended by Parliament to be exceptional, has instead become a norm”, the Good Law Project said. “Local authorities are under a legal obligation to ensure they have sufficient homes in their area for all the children in their care who need them. “The challenge to the five local authorities is essentially that they are not doing all that is ‘reasonably practicable’ to ensure they have sufficient homes in their area for all the children they care for”, it explained.
The organisation also says the reason for their legal action against Gavin Williamson is because as Education secretary, he has the power to direct local authorities to comply with their legal obligations where he believes they are not doing so. “We consider the Secretary of State’s failure to act, whilst children in care suffer, to be unlawful. The state can and must do better for these children”, Ms Abbott said.
How is it impacting children?
Children are placed in the care of local authorities because they cannot be cared for by their birth families or others for any number of reasons, making them extremely vulnerable. Many in the care system have suffered abuse and neglect at home, according to children’s charities, and their life-chances and outcomes are often very poor, especially when it comes to performance and behaviour in school. According to the Good Law Project, these poor outcomes can partly be explained by insufficient attention given to where children will live once they are in care, and poor planning around how to support their needs.
“Placing a child out-of-area is extremely disruptive”, the organisation said. “They suffer from loneliness and isolation at being separated from their support networks, have their schooling disrupted, and experience difficulty in accessing social services. “Those children who belong to particular religious or ethnic communities can feel particularly isolated. “Children moved out-of-area are at much greater risk of sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation and involvement in ‘county lines’ than those who remain in their home area”, it added. Recent headlines across the country have shone a spotlight on the more horrific experiences of children in care, including wide-scale abuse in children’s homes, trafficked children going missing or being re-trafficked once taken into the care of local authorities. The Good Law Project says placing children out-of-area makes it even more difficult for effective safeguarding to protect those at risk.
Who are the ‘worst-offending’ authorities?
Surrey County Council
The council has not released all the details in its March 2020 Sufficiency Strategy on what proportion of its 985 looked after children that year are out-of-area, the Good Law Project has said. They did, however, state in the report that “for those children in external residential care, 84% of placements are outside of Surrey and more than 20 miles from home”. Surrey council had also written that more provision is required within the authority’s boundary and it plans to ensure sufficient accommodation within its area for children in its care.
West Sussex County Council
The latest data on the number of children placed out-of-area, published in 2017, is from 2016, and “indicates that 22% of children in care in West Sussex are placed out-of-area, and 38% of children are placed further than 20 miles from home”, the Good Law Project said.
Essex County Council
Essex’s latest report updated in 2020, spanning from 2018-2022, states that 67% of the 1,076 children in its care are placed within the authority’s boundary, but only 37% of children in residential care are placed within Essex, representing a 5% drop in in-area placements since 2019, according the organisation launching a legal challenge against the council.
Cambridgeshire County Council
In it’s latest publicly available sufficiency strategy for 2017-2020, the county council said 47% of the 692 children in its care are placed out-of-county, with a disproportionate number of them being unaccompanied asylum seeking children (73%) and disabled children (50%).
Derby City Council
The Good Law Project said Derby’s strategy for 2019-2022, released in 2019, shows that 30% of the 575 children in the council’s care are placed more than 20 miles from Derby.