A young teenager with complex needs in local authority care has been deprived of their liberty and held in hospital for several months because no secure placement could be found anywhere in England, a family court has heard.
General hospitals are not registered to provide secure accommodation for children in this situation, and do not have the specialist staff required to provide the care and therapeutic input needed.
High court judges have repeatedly raised concerns that children in urgent need of secure accommodation are waiting months to find a place, to the detriment of their mental health.
In a private family court hearing to decide if the media could report details of the case, the Guardian applied for statutory reporting restrictions to be relaxed, arguing that the public interest demanded publication of information about the child’s plight that would normally be withheld from public view.
Judge Stephen Wildblood KC gave permission for anonymised details to be reported, including permission to publish the names of the local authority and two social work managers involved in the case.
A challenge to his ruling by the local authority and social workers was heard on Tuesday in the appeal court, on the basis that the judge had erred in deciding to relax restrictions. The Guardian and BBC participated as “intervenors” to make submissions in support of open justice.
The appeal was heard by three of the country’s most senior judges, Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the family division, Lady Justice King and Lord Justice Warby. It was allowed by consent; the media’s application for permission to report the details of this case will now go back to Wildblood, and will be re-decided at a later date.
England has an acute shortage of secure therapeutic placements for children with severe emotional and psychological needs. Government figures published in March show there are just 132 spaces in secure homes for children with urgent and complex needs.
On any given day, about 50 children – twice as many as in the previous 12 months – were seeking a placement. About 30 children – an increase of a third on the previous 12-month period – end up placed hundreds of miles from home in Scotland due to the lack of available secure units in England.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All children and young people deserve to grow up in stable, loving homes, and local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure that there are enough places for their looked-after children.
“We are supporting local authorities through providing £259m to maintain capacity and expand provision in secure and open children’s homes.
“This will provide high quality, safe homes for some of our most vulnerable children. It will mean children can live closer to their families, schools, and health services, in settings that meet their needs.”