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Secure Accommodation and Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards – What is best for my child?

‘Locking a child up is one of the most extreme interventions the state can make in a child’s life. Too often I have found that this happens as a result of a series of missed opportunities – opportunities to identify difficulties early on, and provide the right support to children and their families,’ wrote Anne Longfield the Children’s Commissioner in her report: Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up: November 2020.

It sometimes reaches a point where it is decided that the only immediate way available to keep a child safe from harming themselves or others is to deprive them of their liberty. When this happens, it is vital that children’s interests come first – that their rights are protected, and that they are in the best possible place to help them stay safe and get the support to recover and progress’

Zahra Manji is an experienced child protection lawyer who has advised many families where a child has been placed in a secure accommodation unit or they have a non-secure placement with deprivation of liberty safeguards in place.

She has seen at first-hand how parents can find themselves in situations where their child is at risk of harming themselves or others, and they need to know their legal rights. Children’s Services become involved, and the parents cannot keep their child safe at home, and alternatives need to be found. The behaviours can be so extreme that foster care placements or even specialist residential placements cannot keep a child safe.

Examples of the behaviours that parents might see with their children include:

  • a child engaging in violent and aggressive behaviour;
  • a child repeatedly going missing;
  • young children taking drugs, including stories of children being involved with drug networks which are engineered by gangs and organised criminal networks.

The courts have increasingly come across stark stories of children engaging in extreme behaviour:

  • A child stating that they wanted to kill themselves and having attempted to strangle themselves, swallow objects including screws, batteries and a remote control unit (Lancashire County Council v G and N (2020) EWHC 2828).
  • A child setting light to a mental health in-patient home where they were living (Lancashire County Council v G and N (2020) EWHC 2828).
  • Children being at risk of sexual exploitation whereby a child or young person is pressured or tricked, by an adult or friend of a similar age, into sexual activity in return for something. This could include food, shelter, drugs, alcohol, gifts or money.

Parents, judges, and social workers may ask the question: how do we keep this child safe from harm? A situation can become so desperate that Judges have asked themselves: is locking this child up the best way to keep them safe?

Types of living arrangements to help such children

A secure accommodation unit is a children’s home for a child where a child is unable to leave. Restrictions can be put in place within the placement to keep the child safe

Section 25 of the Children Act 1989 provides for situations where a judge can authorise a child to be placed in a secure accommodation unit.  The judge must be satisfied that:

  • the child has a history of absconding and is likely to abscond from any other description of accommodation; and if he absconds, he is likely to suffer significant harm; or
  • if the child is kept in any other description of accommodation, he is likely to injure himself or other persons.

There are 11 secure accommodation centres in the UK with 108 places available.[1] The courts, over the years, have expressed increasing frustration at the waiting lists for such placements.

Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards

Due to the problems with secure accommodation units, social workers have increasingly looked to alternative non-secure placements (for example a children’s home that is not secure) but then ask the court to authorise them to use special measures and restrictions which they say are needed to keep the child safe.

Examples of such restrictions include (not exhaustive):

  • locking doors and windows to the placement;
  • having staff members supervise the child at all times;
  • not allowing the child to leave the placement without supervision;
  • taking a child’s mobile telephone away from them;
  • restraining a child physically;
  • supervising the child’s access to money.

When faced with an application from a local authority, the case must go before a High Court judge. This reflects how seriously the court system takes the above measures which deprive a child of their freedom and liberty – very seriously.

What are the advantages of such placements?

The aim of the placements is to keep children safe. When we act on cases, we always worry that if such safeguards are not utilized, a child could come to serious harm.

As solicitors, we are regularly visit children in placements and we have found that placements can provide good educational provision for a child. They can also provide mental health, drug resources and therapy for a child.

We act in cases where children can respond well to their placements. The staff are specially trained to deal with children with complex needs, and have the experience to persevere.

The placements can act as a bridging gap: Children can move from secure/ non-secure placements back to community-based placements such as foster care or residential placements, or back to their parental home or with family.

A child’s wishes and feelings are very important in such cases.. As solicitors, we always encourage children to participate in such proceedings, as the decision making is about their lives.

Our experiences of the problems with the current situation

The children we come across, often have very complex psychological or psychiatric needs. We worry, that by placing the children in secure settings and depriving them of their freedoms this may add to the trauma they have experienced.

There are long waiting lists for placements.

There is not enough help available for parents. When a parent is faced with caring for a child with complex needs, they need to be resilient. In a lot of the cases we have seen, parents have often been through a difficult history themselves. They might need help from a doctor or through therapy. This can be hard to access.

Placements which are far away can make life difficult for both children and parents. Children become anxious that they are going to a place which is far away, and this can lead them to become uncooperative.  Long distances can cause issues with contact arrangements between a parent and a child.

How we can help

At Miles and Partners, our group of specialist solicitors, regularly act for children and parents where an application has been made to the court for a child to be placed in a secure accommodation unit or a non-secure placement but with deprivation of liberty safeguards in place.

We support parents, grandparents, other relatives, when a local authority proposes a secure accommodation order or a DoLS order.

We also act separately for children who are old enough and have sufficient understanding to instruct a solicitor themselves. Generally, this applies to teenagers only, but sometimes children as young as 10 can be found to be of sufficient understanding.

We can help by advising as to the court’s likely approach in your circumstances and can represent you in court if you are party to the application.


[1] Children accommodated in secure Children’s homes, February 2020, Report published by the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield:  Who are they? Where are they? Children locked up: November 2020, page 15

The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.

Zahra Manji

Senior Associate Solicitor