Councils in England and Wales pay £1m a year to house child in private care home | Social care

More than 20 councils in England and Wales have paid the equivalent of £1m a year or more to place a single child in a private children’s home as the cost of specialised care soars, data released to the Guardian shows.

The body representing children’s services directors in England urged the government to take profit out of children’s social care as figures showed 24 councils were paying the equivalent of seven-figure sums.

One local authority – Knowsley in Merseyside – paid £49,680 a week for one child, which would equate to more than £2m a year.

Steve Crocker, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in England, said the Guardian’s findings highlighted an increasing problem.

“Children’s needs vary and we recognise that some placements, for example for children with complex and overlapping education, health and social care needs, will cost more than others. However, profiteering is a growing concern for us, and the Competition and Markets Authority recently expressed similar concerns following a market study in children’s social care,” he said.

“ADCS members continue to call for a shift towards a not-for-profit system, both Scottish and Welsh governments are working towards this goal, but we are realistic, this cannot happen overnight. Plus, an outright ban on profits comes with the risk of disorderly withdrawals from the market, the stakes are just too high for children. So, whilst we should work towards a not-for-profit system, all other options should be explored in the meantime.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, said the most expensive placements tended to be short-term and bespoke, with high numbers of agency staff and high staff-to-child ratios. “This is the opposite of the stable, loving and specialist care that we need to be providing for all our children,” she said, calling for “a radically different approach which refocuses on the principle that children should be cared for close to home, in placements that adapt as children’s needs change”.

There is no data to suggest that the most expensive placements have the best outcomes for children. But the extreme costs involved in taking care of a very small number of young people is a huge challenge for cash-strapped councils, which often end up cutting preventive services.

The most costly placements were to look after some of society’s most vulnerable children, often at very short notice. Some were as young as 12 and needed four staff watching them 24 hours a day. Many had issues of serious self-harm and of hurting their carers, and in some cases a judge had authorised for them to be locked up in a secure home.

These children, deemed a risk to themselves and others, qualify for places in secure children’s homes, all run by the state or voluntary sector. But there are now only 14 of these specialist therapeutic institutions in England and Wales, not nearly enough to match the need. On any given day, approximately 50 children are waiting for a place, according to Ofsted, the inspectorate.

Children who cannot find a place in a secure children’s home are usually detained elsewhere, often in flats or other accommodation with large teams of agency staff.

Since last autumn, North Yorkshire county council has been spending £35,480 a week on the care of one child, who is watched constantly by three agency staff and one dedicated support worker.

Hammersmith and Fulham in London paid £42,000 for one week for a child who was unable to be safely placed alongside other children, while Lewisham in London paid £23,000 a week for 17 months for a teenager who needed a mental health nurse, three care support workers during the day and two care support workers at night.

Blackpool council paid between £24,000 and £31,000 a week for one child’s care over a three-month period. That young person was vulnerable to sexual exploitation and was subject to a deprivation of liberty order and care order imposed by a high court judge.

About 35 English children are living in Scottish secure homes, far from friends and family, Ofsted said.

In Scotland – where a third of all children’s homes are run by private providers, compared with more than three-quarters in England and Wales – councils are generally paying far less than their English and Welsh counterparts. Only seven have crossed the £10,000 a week threshold, with the most expensive for a non-disabled child costing £10,700 weekly (North Ayrshire).

Between 2016 and 2020, the number of looked-after children rose 14% in England, and 27% in Wales, though it fell by 7% in Scotland.

Ofsted said: “The children’s social care ‘market’ remains problematic. Commissioning of specialist services is often linked to individual children … A national approach to commissioning these specialist services is necessary and long overdue.”

Average prices for children’s home places in England are £4,865 a week for a local authority place and £4,153 for a private placement, a review by the Personal Social Services Review Unit found. This is up from about £3,000 in 2016, with prices rising week by week as the cost of food, petrol and energy spirals.

But now many English and Welsh councils are regularly paying more than £10,000 a week per child. Devon county council said it had commissioned 43 £10,000-plus weekly placements since 2018. Lancashire county council and Tameside in Greater Manchester have each had 28 in the same time period.

Councils that have paid the equivalent of £1m a year or more (£19,600-plus per week) for one child’s residential care are: Devon, Knowsley, North Yorkshire, Nottingham, Blackpool, Coventry, Hampshire, Suffolk, Barnsley, Norfolk, Thurrock, Blackburn with Darwen, Wokingham, Nottinghamshire, East Sussex, Warrington; the London boroughs of Brent, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Hillingdon, Lewisham and Sutton; and Monmouthshire and Powys in Wales.

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Five local authorities – Sefton in Merseyside, Swansea and Wrexham in Wales and Wolverhampton and Walsall in the Midlands – refused to reveal the cost of their most expensive children’s home placement, saying to do so could risk revealing the identity of a child. The Guardian has complained to the information commissioner, but the process tends to take at least nine months.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All children and young people deserve to grow up in a stable, loving home, and no private company should exploit those in need of placement.

“Children’s homes care for young people who often have very complex needs, requiring dedicated – and sometimes constant round the clock – support. That’s why we are putting unprecedented investment into expanding provision and raising standards for children in care, ahead of wide-scale reform to the care system.”

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