Judge approves unlawful placement for girl, 13, at risk of suicide | Children

A 13-year-old girl at risk of suicide and in the care of Manchester city council has languished in hospital for more than three months due to a lack of suitable placements anywhere in the country.

In a family court hearing which a high court judge unusually directed should be held in public, Mr Justice Poole on Wednesday sanctioned the use of an unregulated, unlawful placement for the teenager. He accepted that since the council had spent many weeks exhaustively searching for a suitable home only to be met with repeated refusals, an unlawful placement was now “the only hope” for the child to be discharged from hospital. The cost of her new placement will be £9,650 a week, the court heard.

In making the order, the judge referred to the national scarcity of therapeutic homes for children with complex emotional and psychological needs as “scandalous” and warned that there was “no end in sight” to the plight of hundreds of young people who urgently need to be looked after in homes where they can be kept safe.

Shortly after her admission to hospital in July the girl was deemed medically fit for discharge, but remained on the ward because the local authority could find nowhere else for her to go. Through her court-appointed guardian, the teenager told Poole that she wanted to leave hospital and live in a placement near her home. In hospital she suffered a physical assault by a member of staff who was subsequently dismissed, and has repeatedly self-harmed, absconded from the ward and assaulted staff.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide suitable accommodation for children in their care, but this is the second publicised case in a week where a family court has been asked to sanction the use of an unlawful placement because no lawful one can be found.

In its submissions to the court, Manchester city council said that its recent searches for a placement for the girl showed that on 10 October, 62 children in England were in need of a regulated secure placement. Just two were on offer. The council had also contacted 11 private providers to ask if they could offer an unregulated placement for the teenager, but none could. Some providers cited the commercial risk posed by providing an unlawful placement which could result in them being issued with a “cease and desist” notice by Ofsted, the care regulator, followed by a criminal prosecution.

Poole noted that the court had no powers to direct private providers to make places available for children, no matter how urgent the need. “At previous hearings I have directed the attendance of the director of children’s services, and that the details of this case are provided to the secretary of state and the children’s commissioner, all to no avail,” he said.

In permitting the local authority to make use of bespoke unregulated placement it has only just been able to commission, the judge noted that “the court is not a regulator and cannot provide the level of oversight a regulator provides”.

He directed that his judgment should be provided to Ofsted and expressed his hope that the child’s placement should not be disrupted, given it was “an imperative necessity and in her best interests” to be able to leave hospital as soon as possible.When a place for a child cannot be found in a welfare, youth justice or mental health setting, the high court can use its powers todeprive a child of their liberty in an unregulated placement.

In recognition of the drastic and sensitive nature of orders depriving children of their liberty, the president of the family division of the high court announced the launch of a national deprivation of liberty court (NDOLC) in July. In its first two months in operation, 237 applications were made to the new court.

Lisa Harker, the director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said: “These first two months’ figures may not be representative, but if they continue at this rate, we are seeing significantly higher numbers of applications for deprivations of liberty than we had anticipated.”

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