A lack of clarity about the purpose of secure children’s homes in Government policy and even among the staff who work in them makes it almost impossible to know if they are an effective way to rehabilitate vulnerable young people, new research has found.
Secure homes are locked institutions that deprive children of their liberty. Children can be sent there under the justice system if they have committed an offence, or under the welfare system if they are a risk to themselves.
Last year, 139 children in England and Wales were accommodated in 13 secure homes. Two homes accommodate exclusively justice placements and six exclusively welfare, while the remaining five accommodate children on both types of placement together
In 2021, the Government announced it would be making a significant investment in these institutions over a three-year period but concern has been raised that without a clear set of objectives, it is impossible to measure the impact of sending a child to secure care.
“Sending a child to a secure home comes with enormous financial and emotional costs,” said Dr Caroline Andow, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at Bournemouth University who carried out the study. “But how can we know if they are achieving results if we don’t have a clear sense of what they are, what they want to achieve and a consistent approach to measuring their impact?” she continued.
In the new study, published in the journal Children and Society, Dr Andow spent seven months inside a secure home that accommodated children held on welfare and justice placements, observing daily life and interviewing both staff and children.
Staff she spoke to found it difficult to describe the nature of their workplace, with most believing “prison-like” was the easiest definition to give to outsiders. They also recognised the uncertainty about the purpose of the institution, describing it in terms such as “a holding pen”, “purely containment” and “just somewhere to hold kids”.
The lack of any measurement of outcomes of detaining children was also a common observation, with some feeling that they made no significant impact. One staff member said, “they've continued to do naughty stuff whilst they've been here, and then we just breathe a sigh of relief when they've left because we don't have to deal with that anymore.”
The confusion was also shown in the children who were accommodated there, particularly due to the difference in treatment between justice and welfare inmates, with one saying, “Am I supposed to be in a prison or a mental hospital?”. Reflecting on the lack of clear purpose of the institution, another said, “you sit here, do your time and that's it.”
Dr Andow concludes that the nature and purpose of secure children's homes must be defined for the well-being of children and staff, and stresses that the authorities need to implement an effective way to evaluate the impact of this costly form of intervention in children’s lives.
“I look at this from a parent’s point of view and I would want to know what my child would get out of this system. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, are looking to move away from the secure homes approach. Scotland recently announced that it would carry out more research into how secure homes can be effective in rehabilitating children before making any investment. In England and Wales, the Government is investing money before understanding fully what works,” she said.
Dr Andow is now working in association with London boroughs to inform a new secure children’s home in London. She said, “The new secure provision in London represents an exciting opportunity to improve secure care for the most vulnerable children. The findings of this study, and my broader ongoing research, will be used to ensure that the nature and purpose of new provision is clear from the outset and evaluation measures are put in place to monitor outcomes. It is a testament to the project leaders that they are open to and encouraging of research to bring about change in secure care for children.”