The shocking lack of secure accommodation for children in crisis is nothing short of a national scandal. The High Court powerfully made that point in the case of a deeply troubled teenager who was accommodated, inappropriately, in a hospital’s mental health unit because there was nowhere else for her to go.
The girl was not in need of medical treatment and there was agreement on all sides that the unit – where she lived amongst mainly adult mental health patients, some of whom exhibited risky behaviours – was not the place for her. A nationwide hunt for the secure accommodation she needed had, however, yielded a complete blank.
When her case came before the Court, statistics showed that there were 62 children awaiting placement in secure accommodation in England and Wales. There was, however, only one vacancy. The Court did not mince words in describing that chronic and longstanding shortage as scandalous and shocking.
The local authority that bore parental responsibility for the girl, who was in care, had searched high and low for an appropriate placement and had done all that it reasonably could to meet its statutory duty. However, all involved in the case agreed that her behaviour, wellbeing, and even her life were potentially at risk if she were not suitably accommodated.
Although she was better off in the hospital than on the streets, it was both tragic and unacceptable that she should be confined in such an inappropriate environment. Patients requiring medical treatment needed the NHS bed that she occupied. There was good reason for the hospital’s considerable reluctance to keep her there and it could not be compelled to do so.
The hospital had, with difficulty, been persuaded to accommodate her for one more week but was very unlikely to agree to any further extension of her stay. That, the Court noted, placed the local authority under considerable pressure to continue its quest for a suitable placement in earnest.
The Court emphasised that it was no part of its role to investigate the funding or other causes of the shortage, or to discern where responsibility for it lay. It observed, however, that the immense cost of the case, and numerous others like it, would have been avoided had public authorities not failed in their duty to provide sufficient secure accommodation for children in need.