County Council in legal battle over policy of moving children placed in care far from home

Legal action is being taken against Essex County Council for its failure to prevent scores of children “being put at risk” by placing them in care far away from home.

Although 67 percent of all looked after children are placed in Essex, only 37 per cent of children in residential care are placed within Essex, the Good Law Project has said.

This represents a five per cent drop in in area placements since 2019.

The Good Law Project (GLP) – which earlier this year won a High Court challenge against the Cabinet Office over a £560,000 COVID-19 contract awarded with no competitive tenders – is now bringing a judicial review against the county council.

GLP is challenging four other local authorities – Cambridgeshire, West Sussex, Surrey and Derby City – for what it says is their failure to comply with their duty and is also challenging the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, for failing to exercise his power to step in.

A spokesperson for Essex County Council said: “Essex County Council always acts within the legal framework on care placements for children and young people.

“Our priority is to ensure that every child receives the right level of care to meet their individual needs.”

The GLP says many children are sent far away from their support networks because often it is cheaper.

GLP has said that local authorities are repeatedly placing children in care in the cheapest accommodation, rather than the accommodation that best meets their needs. For more than 30,000 children last year, this meant being torn away from their schools, loved ones and support networks – placed miles outside of their local area, often with no warning.

It adds that three quarters of children’s homes are now run by the private sector and these are disproportionately located in the North of England because property is cheaper.

In 2016/2017 there were 30 residential placements inside Essex and 68 outside, in 2017/2018 there were 40 inside and 61 outside and in 2018/2019 there were 35 inside and 65 outside.

A report published at the beginning of 2020 on the award of the Framework Agreement for Looked After Children in Residential Care said: “As at November 2019, 101 Essex Young People were supported in residential placements, all of which were delivered by external providers.

“This is equivalent to 10 per cent of looked after children being placed within a residential placement.

“Although the overall demand for residential placements has remained constant , in the last two years there has been an increase in demand for placements that can support young people with more complex needs and vulnerabilities, including those at risk of gang involvement, substance misuse and child sexual exploitation (CSE).

“There is also a need to improve the availability of local placements, where this is appropriate to the individual young person, since as at June 2018 we had 65 placements outside Essex, usually due to an absence in suitable placements within Essex at the point of placement.

“Despite the fact that there is sufficient capacity within the local market to meet our needs, other authorities make placements within Essex, which has a detrimental impact on local sufficiency and reduces placement availability for the council.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter