A report published by the children’s commissioner for England in December 2019 highlights that there are more than 30,000 looked-after children living “out of area” in England, an increase of 13 per cent since 2014. Over 11,000 of these children are more than 20 miles from what they would call home, with over 2,000 further than one hundred miles away. Children may be placed out of area for a number of reasons, such as keeping them safe from the threat of criminal gangs or sexual abusers. However, in some cases they are placed out of area simply because there is nowhere suitable for them to live locally. More than half of those living out of their local area (52 per cent) have special educational needs and a quarter have social, emotional and mental health needs. The report highlights that children placed long distances from home lose their support networks and are at greater risk of going missing. They also become targets for exploitation by gangs.
Where a placement with a child’s parent is not possible, section 22 of the Children Act 1989 outlines that the responsible authority should place the child in “the most appropriate placement available”, that is the one that they consider will best promote and safeguard the child’s welfare. The Department for Education’s Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations volume 2: care planning, placement and case review, published in 2015, elaborates on this duty.
The responsible authority must ensure that, as far as reasonably practicable, the placement:
- Allows the child to live near his/her home;
- Does not disrupt his/her education (particularly at Key Stage 4);
- Enables the child and his/her sibling to live together, if the child has a sibling who is also looked after by the local authority;
- Provides accommodation which is suitable to the child’s needs if the child is disabled; and
- Is within the local authority’s area.
The placement criteria are important because most children will generally benefit from being placed with relatives or friends or others connected with them, near their own homes; from continuing to attend the same school; from living with their siblings and from living in accommodation which is appropriate for any special needs. However, the guidance also makes allowances for circumstances when this might not be possible, such as when a child has complex needs that cannot be met locally, and when out-of-area placements might be necessary from a safeguarding perspective (for example to protect a child from exploitation).
Lack of accommodation
Even taking into account the need to weigh up different options and priorities, the children’s commissioner has stated that decision-making is now “beholden to even stronger forces”. While section 22G of the Children Act 1989 (as inserted by the Children and Young Persons Act 2008) places a general duty on local authorities to take steps that secure sufficient accommodation to meet the needs of looked-after children, in many areas funding cuts have affected the ability of local authorities to commission care services. As a result, they cannot match the level of need and become reliant on private care providers that operate in cheaper regions and rarely prioritise local children. This means that children – and particularly older children – can be pushed away from home not because it is in their best interests, but because there is nowhere else for them to go.
Among other recommendations, the report calls for measures to ensure that children can easily relay their views and wishes about their care arrangements in order to help address this issue. These include strengthened guidance relating to terminating care placements; greater requirements on independent reviewing officers to visit and make contact with children when they are placed out of their local areas and ahead of moving between homes; and greater requirements on advocacy services so that children are allocated a named “reserve advocate” as soon as they are placed away from their home areas.