More than 30 children under Lewisham’s care are living in unregulated accommodation, it has emerged, and two of them are under 16.
Unlike children’s homes, Ofsted does not inspect these settings, and young people – usually either 16 or 17 – are often left with little support and can be at risk of exploitation.
The figures emerged in response to a public question submitted ahead of Lewisham’s full council meeting on Wednesday.
Mark Morris asked about the numbers following a worrying report from the Children’s Commissioner for England in September, ‘Unregulated: Children in care living in semi-independent accommodation’.
The Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has called on the Government to change the law to stop councils placing under 18s in care in this type of accommodation in the wake of the report, which revealed that thousands of children were doing so.
It found that children were living in bedsits, hostels, caravans, tents, and in one case a barge.
The young people involved are entitled to ‘support’ but not ‘care’, and as a result are “too often being left to fend for themselves, with minimal support, for all but a few hours a week”, according to the report.
It found that one in eight children in care spent some time in unregulated placements in 2018/19, and that the number is increasing due to the lack of capacity in children’s homes and “an outdated belief that children aged just 16 should be ready to become independent”.
The Commissioner heard some positive stories but also “some shocking” ones, including “from children with mental health, self-harm or drug issues who became victims of exploitation and abuse while living in unregulated accommodation”.
The report also showed that some providers “are making extraordinary profits from unregulated accommodation” and highlights “how many desperate councils are paying thousands of pounds a week to private providers who are then providing poor quality accommodation and little in the way of support to often very vulnerable children”.
Charges vary from £800 to £9,000 per week.
The report also revealed that some providers are “known to have criminal links”, and are avoiding routine procedures designed to keep children safe, such as DBS checks.
Earlier this year the Government promised reforms, including a ban on the use of unregulated placements for under 16s and introducing new national standards.
But the Commissioner is pushing for the ban to include under 18s.
Lewisham currently has 480 children in its care – 34 are staying in unregulated accommodation.
Responding to the public question, Councillor Chris Barnham, cabinet member for children’s services and school performance, said: “As with all such placements, the safety and wellbeing of the children and young people are the highest priority.”
He said this is ensured by all children having an allocated social worker and independent reviewing officer, 24-hour support on site, with extra outreach hours depending on need but all have a minimum of 10 hours a week, and support from mentors.
Cllr Barnham said some attend college, while “many” have contact with their families, a liaison with Oftsted, and, where there is a citizenship application, an assigned lawyer.
“Typically, these placements are semi-independent provisions commissioned by Lewisham as part of our housing pathways and the council considers them to be safe and suitable for 16 and 17 year olds.
“Their care and pathway plans are supported by allocated social workers and their move to semi-independent accommodation is part of a plan for developing independence skills.
“The two cases involving children under 16 years old in unregulated placements are exceptional, and very complex, and subject to a high degree of oversight,” Cllr Barnham said.
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