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A City Council v X, Y and Q (DOLS: Lack of secure placement)[2021] EWHC 123 (Fam)

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Q is 16, and will be 17 soon.  He was taken into care aged 2, and adopted aged 3.  His adoptive parents separated 5 years later, and his adoptive mother reported that his behaviour was difficult to manage as a single parent (both adoptive parents had reported this prior to their separation).  He was referred to CAMHS and diagnosed with ADHD.  At the age of 10, Q was accommodated by the local authority at his adoptive mother's request.  His first foster placement broke down after a year due to his behavioural difficulties.  He moved to a residential school for a little over 2 years, but this broke down due to further concerns about his behaviour, including concealing weapons and assaulting staff.  He moved to a residential unit, but this broke down within a month because of continued behaviour which posed a risk of harm to both himself and staff.  Q then moved to a specialist secure accommodation unit from August 2017 until February 2018.  In March 2018 he was made subject of a final care order.  From February 2018 until the autumn of 2019 Q then remained in a single occupancy placement, which broke down after an allegation Q had caused a younger child to touch his penis.

In December 2018 a deputy High Court judge made an order under the inherent jurisdiction authorising the deprivation of Q's liberty as he was, by that stage, supervised by 2 staff day and night, and was not free to leave his placement.  Specialist advice was sought in relation to Q's inappropriate and harmful sexual behaviour, and whilst Q seemed relatively settled in a new placement, sexualised behaviour remained difficult to manage, and further restrictions were put in place in relation to use of internet and telephone, and a requirement for constant supervision.

Despite tight restrictions, Q was able to abscond from placement and in August 2020 committed several sexual offences during a 24 hour period which resulted in a sentence of an intensive referral order for 12 months from October 2020.  Shortly after the commission of the offences the Local Authority's plan changed to one of secure accommodation, and pending the identification of a placement, the restrictions on Q's liberty were further tightened, including 3 to 1 supervision and a prohibition on leaving the placement at all, including a prohibition on going in the garden.

The case was transferred up due to ongoing concerns about the lack of a secure placement, and was first heard by Knowles J on 24.11.2020.

Efforts were made to obtain information as to why a bed was not available for Q, and in particular whether a 'justice' bed could be spot purchased for Q as a 'welfare' bed. 

In December 2020 Q moved to a different single-placement registered children's home, but was still able to access a mobile and apparently take pictures of his genitals.

Enquiries showed that the lack of a secure bed for Q was not just down to the usual high level of demand for beds, because at times between July 2020 and January 2021 there were vacancies in the secure estate, but as units cannot currently be compelled to explain why they do not offer a bed to a child, it was unclear why Q had never been offered a bed.

In the absence of any secure bed, draconian safeguards were approved, including:


- 3 : 1 supervision when awake


- 2 : 1 supervision when asleep (waking night staff)


- 3 : 1 supervision for any necessary trips out of the unit


- No unsupervised telephone access or the internet (to include not being permitted to hold any devices)


- No access to any social media


- No access to the grounds/garden


- Frosted windows to his room


- No access to open windows

A report from the Youth Offending Service made for what is accurately described in the judgment as "alarming and depressing" reading.  The likelihood of a placement being found which can offer Q the highly specialised therapeutic input required to offer him a realistic chance of change is low, and yet without that help his prospects are bleak.  The judge urged the Local Authority to convene a multi-agency professionals' meeting, given Q's fast-approaching 18th birthday, in an attempt to give him the best opportunity possible upon leaving care.

Whilst the case does contain any new legal principles, it is a further reminder (if needed) of the on-going shortage of beds in the secure estate, leaving many highly vulnerable children waiting for a placement that meets their therapeutic needs but also keeps them safe.

Case Summary by Julia Belyavin, Barrister, St John's Chambers

For full case please see BAILII