‘Nowhere else is available’: how vulnerable children end up in illegal care homes

<span>Councils, unable to find places in registered care homes, are placing children in unregistered accommodation.</span><span>Photograph: RECVISUAL/Getty Images</span>
Councils, unable to find places in registered care homes, are placing children in unregistered accommodation.Photograph: RECVISUAL/Getty Images

The judge sitting in the family division of the high court can barely hide his concern and frustration as he listens to a barrister acting for Kent county council update him about the plight of a vulnerable 14-year-old girl in an unregistered, illegal children’s home run by a private company.

Related: Revealed: hundreds of vulnerable children sent to illegal and unregulated care homes in England

She is at risk of child sexual exploitation. In the past, she has run away, taken hard drugs and been sexually assaulted. But the police warned that Jasmine (not her real name) is being “emotionally abused” by staff in the home, where she has been living for just over a month. Police officers, who visited Jasmine, witnessed a staff member shouting at her after she brushed past.

The staff member then asked the officers to leave so she could discipline her. Jasmine told the officers the staff changed a lot and were constantly shouting at her. She also told them she was on a hunger strike.

“Following the police report from yesterday, Kent does not consider this placement meets [Jasmine’s] emotional needs and does not consider it is in her best interest in the longer term to remain,” explains the barrister over a video link. But then she adds: “In the shorter term, there is no alternative to keep her physically safe.”

The council cannot find a place in an Ofsted-registered home. Despite the abuse she is suffering, despite the police officers’ concerns, despite the judge’s anger, there is no other option but to leave her where she is.

“She’s in a placement which the police say is inappropriate… if that happened in the presence of the police, one wonders what happens nobody is there?” asks Judge Jordan. It is, he concludes, a “classic [example] that has gone wrong”. He approves the order restricting her freedom for two more weeks.

This is a rare glimpse into the often harrowing video hearings that take place throughout the day in the high court, where councils apply for permission to effectively detain some of the most vulnerable, distressed children in the country in children’s homes for their own and others’ safety, or because they are being exploited.

A shortage of places in council-run secure homes means many of these children, who are often struggling with the mental health fallout from traumas in their lives, are locked away in unregistered children’s homes, which are not inspected by Ofsted.

Judges are only allowed to authorise these kinds of severe restrictions – known as deprivation of liberty orders – in unregistered homes when there is no alternative way to keep a child safe. But Ofsted and the most senior judges in the country are clear: it remains illegal to operate a children’s home without registering with Ofsted in England or the Care Inspectorate in Wales.

Ofsted has repeatedly warned of the risks of placing children in unregistered homes as there is no external oversight. Yet an Observer investigation has revealed more and more vulnerable children are being placed illegally. Figures compiled by the Observer and the Together Trust show English councils placed more than 700 children in unregistered homes in 2022/23 – an increase of 277% since 2020/21.

Back in the high court, the family of another extremely vulnerable 14-year-old girl is watching a lawyer for Medway council update a different judge over a video link about the fruitless search for a legal children’s home. The authority has approached 255 providers but has not been able to find a place in a registered home. Nor has the placement team been able to find a place in local authority-run secure children’s homes. There are, says the lawyer, currently 40 referrals for a single secure space. The only option is to send her to an unregistered, illegal home run by another private company.

Lily (not her real name) has been in the care system since she was 13. She had been sexually assaulted and her behaviour subsequently spiralled out of control. Her mother, present at the video hearing, was forced to place her in care because, as she describes it, “I just couldn’t control her”.

The court is told that Lily has experienced sexual abuse and has been involved with crime and drugs. But she has recently reached a new crisis point: she was found on a bridge threatening suicide over the weekend.

Judge Wildblood asks Lily’s mother if she has anything she wants to say. She composes herself as best she can but her sense of powerlessness is overwhelming: “I can’t believe we’re sat here putting [Lily’s] best interests at heart, and we’re going to send her back to an unregulated provision… where she had problems before.”

Lily’s mother sobs, and adds: “We don’t believe it is a safe place for her. We believe she will run again. We are really concerned for safety… I dread to think where we’ll find her – or if we will find her – when she runs again.”

Yet Lily has to leave her current placement tonigh, because it says it does not have the staffing levels to keep her safe any more. Judge Wildblood accepts that the council has tried its best to find suitable accommodation. He acknowledges tht the proposed unregistered placement “causes deep distress to her mother”, but he rules that “the reality is there is no other placement that is available… as of this evening [Lily] has to go somewhere.”

Medway council told the Observer that there was a national shortage of registered accommodation. “While we can’t comment on the specifics of the case, we can advise that when using unregistered accommodation, we always use providers that are known to us, and who have successfully been approved via our commissioning quality assurance process,” said a spokesperson.

“We have robust oversight of such placements, which includes weekly visits and professional meetings, alongside senior leadership oversight. We continue to robustly explore all options to find registered provision in this situation.”

Kent council said that unregulated placements were only made if no registered placements were available. The authority said it checked providers before making placements and investigated if concerns were raised.

Referring to Jasmine’s case, a spokesperson said: “A new placement has now been identified, and both her social worker and adolescent response team [council social workers] maintain a high level of contact with [Jasmine].”

Lily will go on to spend just over a month in an unregistered home. The staff were supposed to keep her safe, but she escaped three times. On one occasion, she was treated in hospital for minor injuries after jumping out of a lower-floor window.

On another occasion, the police were called after she made it to her mother’s estate and threatened to throw herself off a balcony.

“It’s just devastating, says her mother. “None of this needs to happen. One day she will jump. Without any proper mental health support, what is she meant to do?

“It’s like a cry for help but no one’s listening to her.”

Lily, who has ADHD and autism, wasn’t always in need of court orders to keep her safe. She was a calm, loving child, her mother recalls. “She was a very well-mannered child. She never used to swear. She was quite shy. She couldn’t even get up at a restaurant to ask for ketchup,” she says.

That all changed when she was sexually assaulted. Her behaviour spiralled out of control afterwards, Lily’s mother adds. “She was put into care because… I just couldn’t control her.”

Last week, Medway moved Lily to another unregistered home, which is in the process of seeking Ofsted registration. Her mother is pleased that she has moved but says she cannot be sure that the new company will be any better as it has not been checked by Ofsted.

“I don’t know if it is safe, but we are going to see what happens – it’s a nightmare.”