Vulnerable teenagers in care are being placed at risk of abuse while living in unregulated homes in England and Wales, a new investigation has found.
The study comprised at least 13 Freedom of Information requests to councils involving unregulated homes in England and one in Wales over the past four years.
Children over the age of 16 are increasingly being placed in unregulated homes, often known as semi-independent or supported accommodation.
As they are deemed to be providing support rather than care, they are not inspected by a regulator in England and Wales, despite the vulnerabilities of many of the children.
One of the investigations concerned children and young people living in homes in Essex and London, run by Centurion Care.
The study obtained a confidential briefing sent around councils, claiming there were “significant and numerous safeguarding failings”.
Many of the children who lived in the homes – closed in 2017 – are reported to have faced some of the most challenging home lives imaginable, with some becoming involved in crime from an early age.
To children’s charity NSPCC, this suggests “young people who need support are being exposed to serious dangers”.
“Organised and complex abuse” is defined as “abuse involving one or more abusers and a number of related or non-related abused children” by the London Child Safeguarding Board.
A number of case studies in the report highlight this increase of abuse, including Carla, who spent years in foster homes before being sent to Centurion care.
A history of self-harm continued inside one of the company’s homes in Basildon; but when she asked a member of staff to be taken to hospital after one severe incident, he said he could not leave the other residents alone – and there were no bandages for her to use.
Carla said she overdosed on three occasions while living in the home – but Centurion Care told reporters it was aware of only one incident, the NHS 111 non-emergency telephone service had advised she did not require hospital care, and all its homes had first-aid kits.
Another case revealed Andy, who worked as a support worker across many of Centurion Care’s homes.
“They were all very high risk – sexually exploited kids, drugs and alcohol abuse, some that had disabilities, all [under] one roof,” he said.
He recalled how the homes were “completely wild”, with residents keeping drugs and large amounts of cash in their rooms.
“There was nothing you could have really done about it because the other staff members didn’t do anything about it,” he added.
The confidential briefing highlighted that one of the homes was under surveillance by Essex Police “over concerns around drug dealing and criminal gang activity”, while other young people lived inside.
Centurion Care said it had been aware of the police surveillance, had worked with the authorities, and had introduced a CCTV system across all its homes to prevent drug dealing.
Essex Police declined to say when the police surveillance had ended and how long residents had remained in the property.
One council that placed children in Centurion Care homes said it was unable to comment on “police matters” or “individual cases”, with another adding that it had removed children as soon as it became aware of concerns.
According to report, local authorities are responsible for checks on unregulated homes in England and Wales; and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, the homes are regulated, although not to the same the standard as children’s homes.
In a statement, the Department for Education in England, said: “Children in care or those leaving care, including older children, deserve to be kept safe in good-quality accommodation.
“Councils have a legal duty to make sure accommodation for these children is suitable.
“We have written to all directors of children’s services to remind them of this duty, and we are working with the sector and with Ofsted to bear down on issues related to poor practice in the use of semi-independent accommodation.”