HHJ Dancey explains at the outset of this case, Dorset Council v A (Residential Placement: Lack of Resources)  EWFC 62 that he has spoken to A, aged 15, about his intention to ‘tell her story’ and that he is writing the judgment with her and her family reading it in mind.
A had been living in foster homes with her mother’s agreement under section 20 Children Act 1989 for about six months but then in January 2019, the local authority felt they had to apply to court for a care order so that they would share parental responsibility with A’s parents. A’s behaviour toward staff and others was such that it was decided that she needed to live in a residential home rather than with foster carers or family carers. A report by a psychologist, Dr Jefferis, about A concluded that she ‘is a profoundly disturbed young person who would routinely place herself at risk if not kept in a tightly regulated environment.’
As the judge explains:
‘Because the placement in Somerset and later placements have all involved 24/7 supervision of A and the need to be able to lock doors and windows to stop her going missing, I have made a series of DOLs orders authorising those restrictions on her liberty. These have been reviewed regularly and particularly when placements have changed.’
By DOLs orders, the judge means court orders that must be applied for when a teenager is detained in this way – is constantly supervised and not free to leave. We have written about deprivation of liberty here and the shortage of suitable places here.
A was moved around a series of different children’s homes although, as the judge pointed out, a permanent placement was essential if A was to make any progress, as explained by the psychologist. The judge emphasised:
‘ I should stress at this point that the social worker and her team manager (for whose professionalism and dedication I have the greatest respect) had been working tirelessly with the commissioning team to find a permanent placement for A. They had constantly been putting out literally hundreds of enquiries to possible providers around the country to try and find something suitable. It was not that Dorset were unwilling to find or fund a permanent placement. It was simply that nothing could be found.’ [para 23]
There follows a nightmare description of A either not being informed or being informed late at night about various changes in plans about where she will live. At one point she feels forced to agree to move on to let another child take her placement and has to live in a caravan park. She describes herself as feeling ‘homeless’.
The judge says:
‘A came to court on 20 September when there was a review of her DOLs. There was obvious dismay and frustration amongst the social workers, A’s guardian, the lawyers and me, but most importantly A herself, about what had happened to her.’ [para 30]
As A still needs to be detained, for her own welfare, the judge is continuing to authorise this under the DOLs but is clearly very unhappy about the irregular placements, summing up the situation as follows:
‘I tell this story simply to highlight the resource issues that local authorities face looking after young vulnerable people at risk of harm. For A the consequences have been:
- no residential placement or any sense of permanence or stability;
- by my count, excluding the initial foster placements, 10 placements over the course of a year, all bar two of them unregulated, and lasting from a few months to a few days;
- still no formal education;
- no real chance to address the things Dr Jefferis was talking about in his report;
- a situation within which A stayed with her mother in an unplanned way and there was an argument between them which will not have helped their relationship;
- break down in trust between A and the professionals (however hard they might be working to support her).
It is my experience in Dorset that the number of vulnerable young people who need to be looked after or otherwise supported by the local authority is increasing. There are growing concerns around child sexual exploitation, County Lines and other forms of criminal exploitation as risks for these young people. The need for regulated placements is likely to increase. Social workers work tirelessly (and some silly hours) trying to find placements. When they turn up they are seized upon. Sometimes it has taken so long and trust has so broken down that it can be difficult to move young people on.
The problems are huge. That is why I have told A’s story.’
As HHJ Dancey says, we are all increasingly aware of the risks of exploitation of teenagers who aren’t in stable placements. There have been a number of high profile media stories about county lines and unregulated placements. However, noone seems to be taking any responsibility for looking at the provision of sufficient secure placements, and judicial power to make these orders to protect young people is meaningless if their purpose can’t be fulfilled.
Image – Kevin Phillips, Pixabay
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