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What's in a name?

Language is so important, it affects the way we see people and situations and great examples are seen in the language used in the care system. Children and young people in our care often say they don’t want to be referred to as ‘LAC’ or they want the time they spend with their family to be called ‘family time’ rather than ‘contact’, for example. The impact of language was brought home to me this week in reading the new APPG report No Place at Home which raised some profound and important concerns but also used some sensational language that left me feeling overwhelmed by the challenges. Similarly, the terminology we use to describe where some of our young people live can be unhelpful and misleading. ‘Unregulated settings’ (the topic of a blog by Ofsted’s National Director of Social Care, Yvette Stanley, earlier in the summer) feels particularly helpful here.

People can be unsure of what unregulated provision is, and can sometimes confuse this with ‘unregistered’ provision. As Yvette helpfully pointed out in her blog they are not the same, ‘unregulated provision is allowed in law’ and includes potentially positive placements like supported lodgings. However, unregistered provision where a young person is receiving ‘care’ in a place not registered with Ofsted, is not and is rightly challenged. Both words paint a picture of potential risk and poor care, reinforced by high profile examples of the experiences of some children in those settings but it is vital that we don’t form judgements simply on the basis of language and definitions.

For the purpose of this blog, I’ll be focussing on unregulated settings which are designed to be used for young people who are 16 or over and need some level of support but not full-time care.

Unlike children’s homes, minimum standards for unregulated provision aren’t currently set out in law. However, the term ‘unregulated’ is increasingly being assumed to mean unchecked, unsuitable or unsafe. When placing a child the crucial issue is “suitable”. Not all young people placed in unregulated settings are badly placed and without support. Children in suitable unregulated settings where good wrap around support is part of a highly tailored plan can do very well and this is an important distinction to make. Using this provision as part of a planned process based on the needs and wishes of a young person, is very different to using it in a crisis situation where it may not be suitable but when no other accommodation is available. The challenges we face nationally in providing the range of placement options we need for our children certainly contributes to the use of unsuitable unregulated provision which has rightly become a source of concern.

Recent media coverage of unregulated settings has focussed almost exclusively on young people who have had negative experiences, at times conflating several different issues that aren’t necessarily always related, focusing on unregulated settings linked to young people who are missing or in out of area placements. No one would endorse the practice that has contributed to those stories. We recognise that some people think greater regulation of these settings will keep children and young people safe, but ADCS believes that total regulation of such provision is not the answer. A placement alone will not keep children safe, including from those who seek to exploit them or indeed prevent them from going missing. Protecting young people from harm, particularly young people who are old enough to be out and about on their own, requires the building of healthy trusted relationships, plus a contextual and whole community response to safeguarding in addition to the work of social care, education, the police and others. The flexibility unregulated provision brings is important too, meeting the needs of some young people as part of careful planning and support towards independence. In considering what additional regulation may help, there must be recognition of what the system would look like without local authorities being able to use these settings where there is evidence that they are suitable and a positive thing for young people.

There is some excellent unregulated provision including commissioning of bespoke supported lodgings, where local authorities and providers are successfully supporting young people to develop independence, but we share concerns that not all provision is what we’d want to see. ADCS is absolutely clear, no child or young person should live in unsafe, unsuitable accommodation. Local authorities in supporting their children have a responsibility to make sure unregulated provision used is suitable and should take their own steps to ensure this is the case. Checks include health and safety considerations, auditing staff DBS checks and assessing the suitability of landlords, plus conducting unannounced visits and developing support plans for and with young people. The views of young people as well as a proper assessment of their needs are crucial in identifying unregulated provision that is suitable for them where they can be supported. Local authorities may also choose to work together to hold providers to account and address poor practices by putting in place improvement plans or ceasing to commission services where previously identified actions have not been resolved. Ofsted’s greater focus on unregulated settings in recent years has brought this issue to the fore with more councils than ever reviewing their commissioning and monitoring arrangements in this area of provision. This can only be a positive thing for our young people while consideration is given as to what additional regulations may be needed for the future. We need to share some of the good news stories as Mike Bowden did in his blog in June to remind ourselves that there are success stories out there.

We need to both change the narrative in this space and empower and mobilise our local communities to recognise their role in keeping children and young people safe. This is something politicians, charities, the media and others could work with us on so that we can begin to challenge some of the misconceptions that all unregulated provision is unsuitable but tackle together the use of unsuitable unregulated settings which is leading to the tragedies and damaged lives that are too prevalent. Whatever future decisions are taken about further regulation of provision we want them to be taken on the basis of fully objective evidence, with a collective determination to deliver the best for those vulnerable young people who need our partnership parenting support.

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