CHAPTER 3: PERSPECTIVES ON THE NATURE AND USES OF ALTERNATIVES TO SECURE ACCOMMODATION
3.1.1. One of the key aims of this research was to develop understanding of the circumstances in which young people considered for secure accommodation could be effectively maintained in the community or an open setting, through the appropriate use of 'alternatives'. Key stakeholders' perceptions and expectations of these services was evidently important in determining the role they could fulfil.
3.1.2 As discussed in chapter one, the original research design implied that there were a number of clearly identified services which could be offered at a point when young people were close to being made subject to secure authorisation and so might be viewed as constituting a direct 'alternative' to a secure placement. It soon emerged that what was meant by the term 'alternative' was far less clear cut. The research team's attempts to recruit an alternative sample revealed that, apart from some intensive community-based support projects, most services offering 'alternatives to secure accommodation' were not offering a direct alternative, but either intervening at an earlier stage in order to halt the development of risky or problematic behaviour or engaging with young people after admission, when the aim was to enable young people to move out of secure accommodation sooner than would otherwise have been possible and avoid readmission by providing after-care support. From the survey of placements of young people made subject to secure authorisation, it became clear that when authorisation was made but no bed was available, the most likely 'alternative' was for young people to remain in a residential unit or school. Sometimes the need for secure placement was avoided, yet few of these resources labelled themselves as an 'alternative to secure accommodation', since the arrangement was unplanned. The term 'alternative to secure accommodation' implied a positive option, whereas sustaining young people in a placement because no secure place was available was generally viewed in a negative light.
2. DEFINITIONS OF ALTERNATIVES
3.2.1 Responses to the question 'what kind of services would constitute an alternative to secure accommodation?' highlighted different views on whether there ever could be 'alternatives' to secure placement.
A Direct Alternative to Secure Accommodation?
3.2.2 In the quotations presented below, two positions on whether there could ever be a direct alternative to secure accommodation are illustrated in responses to a question about what respondents would expect from services offering an 'alternative to secure accommodation':
I struggle slightly with this question because of the range of projects that have been set up as an alternative. I don't know if it's right just to equate them because either children meet secure accommodation criteria or they don't. ( S.W. manager 7)
I suppose we wouldn't use them instead of security, in that if they require security, they require security, but what [our use of alternatives] does show is that very often people don't require security in terms of being locked away. ( S.W. manager 8)
3.2.3 The first quotation is an example of several responses which questioned whether it was in fact possible to have a direct alternative to secure accommodation. The argument was that young people should only be placed in secure accommodation if they require physical security, and if they require physical security, nothing less than that should be offered. As expressed in the second half of the first quotation, this position was often associated with the view that whether or not secure accommodation was required could be decided by applying certain objective criteria to the behaviour of the young person concerned.
3.2.4 The second respondent also took the view that physical security would be needed for some young people, but also emphasised that it was possible to provide security and safety without using locked provision. For this manager, 'alternatives' were intensive packages built around an individual young person in order to provide safety and security without the removal of liberty. According to this point of view, young people could meet the secure authorisation criteria, but still be kept safe without being admitted to a secure unit. Whether or not secure accommodation was required depended on what kind of alternative supports might be available.
3.2.5 This second perspective was associated with a keen awareness of the negatives associated with depriving young people of their liberty and an incremental 'process' approach to service provision, that is a willingness to develop packages in response to the specific needs and behaviour of individual young people. Elements of this approach 6 were evident in three local authorities, two of whom had no direct access to their own secure provision and found it difficult to access secure places when these were required. Thus their commitment to developing alternatives had at least in part resulted from necessity.
3.2.6 From the process of recruiting the alternative sample and the survey of young people made subject to secure authorisation it was evident that in most cases the reason given for sustaining a young person in an open residential placement or in the community was that no secure place had been available. Most respondents were reluctant to view this practice as constituting an 'alternative' either because they considered the secure authorisation should not have been made or because they considered it was inadequate to protect the young person. One social work manager acknowledged that young people had been sustained in a residential setting in his own authority, but argued that this did not constitute an alternative because the children's hearing had been mistaken in making them subject to secure authorisation in the first place:
' we have young people who have been on secure authorisations which we have not implemented because we have not felt that they should be in secure…. we have kept them in our own residential units, but we have never really seen them as warranting secure provision… so I would say that is not an alternative as such' (Social work manager 9)
3.2.7 Correspondingly there was a high level of dissatisfaction amongst panel chairs that social work staff did not always implement their authorisations because this could leave young people vulnerable. Asked whether they thought an alternative could be provided by sustaining young people in an open setting, most panel chairs expressed some doubt about alternatives providing a substitute for secure accommodation:
That could be an alternative to some forms of secure accommodation, but it depends why the secure accommodation was an alternative in the first place. If it were for serious offending, then it might not be right. If it were to protect the child from self-harm then it might not be right. Maybe a short spell in secure accommodation to start addressing those behaviours, to calm things down might be right. (Panel chair 3)
Again, the majority of children put in secure are absconding from whatever is being provided at the moment, so my theory would be an open situation is not going to work, they're not going to be contained in it. (Panel chair 1)
I want to see alternatives to secure accommodation, but I think these alternatives are very difficult because if you're working with a child in a residential setting where perhaps that child is being allowed to go home at night, there is a danger the child will abscond and if we put children into secure it's because it's secure. It's not to allow them to abscond. Most children who go into secure certainly would abscond if they got the chance. So I think alternatives would be prior to the child requiring secure. I think we need more of these kind of establishments. (Panel Chair 4)
3.2.8 Among panel chairs interviewed for this study little enthusiasm was expressed for flexible, child-centred packages devised to cater for individual young people:
We don't have alternatives as such. Social work just put together a package but there are no actual alternative services, they don't really exist
(Panel chair 6)
3.2.9 Though arrived at for a number of reasons, the majority view across respondent groups was that there could not be a direct alternative to secure accommodation. Underpinning this was the notion that certain behaviours and levels of risk required physical security, irrespective of what other resources might be available. Alternatives were viewed as having a very important role in preventing young people from reaching that point and supporting young people to return to the community after they had been helped to settle down, but there was considerable reluctance to view them as capable of replacing secure provision at the point when an authorisation was justified. However there was no consensus as to when that point had been reached.
Earlier Intervention and Aftercare
3.2.10 Asked whether services offered at an earlier stage should be viewed as an alternative to secure accommodation, approximately half of the respondents agreed they should, with the others saying they were not alternatives unless they were offered at the point when secure placement was being considered. Irrespective of how they were described, there was considerable support for making additional resources available at an earlier stage.
I see it as a continuum. You know I think if these young people are picked up early in life and you look at what can be put around them, and then if that is constantly being increased, you know, what do you move on to next? I don't think social work is as incremental in its approach as it should be.
( S.W. manager 6)
3.2.11 Respondents referred to support offered by criminal justice teams, specialist foster care and education projects and intensive community support schemes as potentially valuable services which would prevent young people ever reaching the need for a secure placement. In one local authority with fairly extensive provision of this kind respondents were convinced that their availability had reduced the number of young people going into secure accommodation. In most other authorities, those interviewed said alternative services were not yet well enough developed to have had a noticeable impact.
3.2.12 Services which support young people after they left secure accommodation were viewed in equally positive terms. They were also more often considered to merit the term 'alternative' because they could limit the amount of time young people spent in secure accommodation. It was common for respondents to say that some young people remained in secure accommodation longer than necessary because suitable placements and support were not available to enable them to leave. As with services which might prevent secure admission, respondents were concerned that young people receive appropriate support, irrespective of whether the service was termed an 'alternative' or not.
3.2.13 Boosting the capacity of open residential provision to provide structure and more focused work with young people was frequently cited as a potential way of avoiding young people reaching secure accommodation and sustaining them when they left. However there was a reluctance among some panel members to think of children's units as an 'alternative to secure accommodation', since these were the young people's home where the emphasis should be on normalising care.
3. EXPECTATIONS OF 'ALTERNATIVES'
3.3.1 Asked what 'alternatives' to secure accommodation should offer, respondents indicated that a considerable amount was expected of them. In short, alternatives were expected to provide what would have been offered in secure accommodation, while also compensating for some of the disadvantages of a secure placement.
3.3.2 The most common response was that the level of contact with the young person should be high, at least daily and preferably with a 24 hour stand-by service. This intensity of service, coupled with developing a productive relationship with the young person and his or her family was viewed as central to making change. The capacity to work with families and in the young person's community would potentially mean that changes could be sustained.
I think they should offer a high level of contact, availability for young people and their families, so out of hours contact, out of core hours. And I suppose an attempt to develop meaningful relationships and actually do focused work once the immediate crisis is over. ( S.W. manager 5)
Well they should offer a stable basis for work to be done, concentrated work to be done with the young person to address the reasons why they might go into secure - either they're persistently absconding and when they are absconding perhaps placing themselves at risk or placing the public at risk… but in terms of local resources and what not, the question has to be asked,' is it better to try and address the problems in the child's own environment than put them into a false environment?' (Panel chair 6)
3.3.3 Foster care was frequently mentioned as a form of care which incorporated many of the ingredients of a potentially effective alternative:
[in this authority we have no alternatives, but there are plans for professional foster carers] I would feel they might be better off with professional foster carers because that would overcome the problem of what happens when they leave secure accommodation. There would be more of a long-term look at the child, rather than they have their freedom restricted and then they're back where they started (Reporter 1)
3.3.4 In addition to compensating for some of the drawbacks of secure accommodation, alternatives were also expected to include the perceived advantages, for example allow access to appropriate resources, especially education:
I think they should offer the safety of the child, but I also think a lot of panel members want the child to go into secure when they're not having an education either and they're guaranteed that in secure. I think any alternative has to have education built into it. (Panel Chair 1)
4. SUMMARY POINTS
3.4.1 There was strong support for augmenting services which worked intensively with young people before they reached the stage of requiring secure accommodation and for those which supported young people during and after secure placements. Opinions on whether these should be called 'alternatives' varied.
3.4.2 There were different views on what was meant by an 'alternative to secure accommodation'. One position, widely held view among social work managers and panel chairs was that, if young people were accurately assessed as requiring secure accommodation, no other resource would be able to hold them safely. Others took the view that whether a young person could be held safely depended on what alternatives were available, so that whether secure accommodation was required was a function of the nature of service provision as well as the young person's behaviour. According to the second point of view, services could be devised which would sustain some young people who met the secure criteria in an open setting, though there would still be a smaller group who would need physical security for their own and/or others' safety.
3.4.3 'Alternatives' could be thought of as specific projects or as packages of services put together to suit an individual young person. Ideally, 'alternatives' were expected to compensate for some of the drawbacks of secure placements, while still conferring some of the benefits. These might act as a direct alternative, but in practice were more often acting as a form of prevention or of after-care that might make possible a shorter stay in secure. The key elements of an effective 'alternative' service were high levels of contact with the young person and his or her family, preferably with a 24 hour stand-by service.
3.4.4. More structured and task focused residential care was viewed as a good way of avoiding admission to secure accommodation and supporting young people following placement, though there was some reluctance to call this an 'alternative to secure accommodation' because this was thought to detract from its central caring role.