Learning Disability Today
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Serious abuse and neglect of disabled children in three residential homes, report finds

A national review into safeguarding children with disabilities and complex health needs has revealed serious failures at three residential special schools registered as children’s homes.

The independent review looks at the experiences of 108 children and young adults living at Fullerton House, Wilsic Hall and Wheatley House, located in Doncaster and operated by the Hesley Group.

The report shows a culture of abuse and harm, including evidence of physical abuse and violence, neglect, emotional abuse and sexual harm. There was also evidence that medication was misused and maladministered, an over-use of restraints, and unsafe and inappropriate use of temporary confinement.

The children affected were placed at these homes from 55 local authorities across the country and there is a complex abuse investigation underway by the Doncaster Safeguarding Partnership, which includes a concurrent criminal investigation by South Yorkshire Police.

All of the children in the report had disabilities and complex health needs; many of those placed with one of these residential settings were living far from home. All had an EHCP (Education and Health Care Plan).

The Panel said that the children’s stories exemplify how children with complex needs and disabilities too often have no power and voice in what happens to them. They (and their families) are frequently ‘forgotten’ and side?lined in public and professional discourse. The fact that these children lived far from their homes intensifed this ‘forgotten’ status.

Urgent action to all local authorities now issued

The independent national Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel is an independent body that was set up in July 2018 to identify, commission and oversee reviews of serious child safeguarding cases. It brings together experts from social care, policing, health, education and the third sector to provide a multi-agency view on cases which they believe raise issues that are complex, or of national importance.

Given the severity of the allegations and evidence uncovered, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has issued an urgent action to all local authorities to ensure all children with complex needs and disabilities currently living in similar children’s homes are safe and well.

Panel Chair, Annie Hudson said: “This national review seeks to make sense of how and why a significant number of children with disabilities and complex needs came to suffer very serious abuse and neglect whilst living in three privately provided residential settings.

“Our evidence shows that the system of checks and balances which should have detected that things were going wrong simply did not work. While there are many skilled professionals who work with children with disabilities, we are concerned that these are not isolated incidents. That’s why we have asked all local authorities and Ofsted to take urgent action to ensure all children living in similar circumstances are safe and well.”

Complaints dated back to 2015

The phase one report sets out that Ofsted had received a number of complaints dating back to at least 2015, expressing concerns over staffing levels, staff conduct and possible abuse of the children. These complaints had promoted additional monitoring visits and an emergency inspection, but the review has found these were insufficient as both settings had been judged ‘good’ by Ofsted at the most recent inspection visit. In light of the most recent allegations, Ofsted conducted emergency inspections of the settings in March 2021 and notices of suspension of the service were served.

Additionally, local authorities and partner agencies placing children at these homes put great reliance on the reports provided by the settings despite professionals in different roles having separate information indicating concerns. The processes in place for bringing together information from a range of sources to analyse the pattern of safeguarding concerns was not effective.

Dame Christine Lenehan, Strategic Director of the National Children’s Bureau and Council for Disabled Children, said: “This review demonstrates that the residential settings responsible for taking care of these children did not have a clear vision to safeguard them from abuse. The lack of accountability across the residential care system means there is too little ownership for the safety of children with complex needs and, as a consequence, many have suffered, or are at risk of suffering, harm and abuse. We urgently need a shift in thinking, so that these children’s rights to live safely in supportive and nurturing homes is guaranteed.

“While the complex abuse investigation will hold to account those directly involved in the harm of these children, the national review found that the safety net that should have identified and responded to this abuse failed to act on concerns.”

To address these, the panel has requested local authorities and Ofsted to undertake urgent action:

  • local authorities should review complaints and concerns relating to the workforce in each individual residential special school registered as a children’s home over the last three years, and ensure these have been appropriately actioned
  • OFSTED should conduct an immediate analysis of their evidence around workforce sufficiency focusing on suitability, training and support

The panel has been assured that the urgent actions will be completed by the end of November 2022. A second phase of this review will be published in early 2023, setting out the progress against the urgent actions and providing recommendations to government to improve safeguarding in the residential special school and care system.

Key findings from the report

  • There is evidence that children placed in Hesley’s children’s residential settings in Doncaster experienced sustained, significant abuse and harm over an extended period of time. The voices of the children and young adults were not heard.
  • Placement far from home increased the children’s vulnerability.
  • Some children were placed at the settings inappropriately.
  • Leadership and management in the three settings were inadequate and failed to meet statutory requirements, resulting in a culture of poor practice and misconduct by care staff.
  • High rates of staff turnover and vacancies, as well as poor?quality training, support and supervision, were significant factors affecting the children’s quality of care.

The panel concluded that their in?depth analysis of the journeys into residential care of 12 children placed at Hesley’s children’s residential settings highlights key challenges in current provision for children with disabilities and complex health needs that limit their access to the right support at the right time.

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