Safe, but for how long?

7th March 2003 at 00:00
Secure children's homes offer respite, recovery and a chance to rebuild damaged young lives. But changes to the law are putting the system under strain

Stephen Feaver holds up a glass pot. Inside are pieces of broken razor, staples, tweezers, shards of glass, a jagged piece of plastic toothbrush - the tools of self-harm retrieved from his students.

Mr Feaver is manager of Watling House near Telford, Shropshire, a secure children's home that looks after some of the most damaged, and damaging, young people in the UK, particularly those who have been sexually abused or have a history of sexual offending. Up to 50 per cent of the children who come through these doors harm themselves in a brutally imaginative fashion.

Intense pain blots out unbearable memories or attracts the attention craved by these children, many of them horribly unloved, neglected, or worse.

The pressure on secure accommodation across the UK, which offers security and support for youngsters who are dangerous or vulnerable or both, is great. Last month's announcement by the Youth Justice Board that no female under 17 should go to prison and that such young women should be housed instead in secure training centres, will make shortages more acute. And under the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which came into force last September, the courts will be able to remand to secure accommodation 12 to 14-year-olds who repeatedly commit non-violent or non-sexual offences - theft or criminal damage - while on bail or in local authority accommodation (see panel, right).

Watling House, which caters for the most vulnerable children, is already looking to increase its capacity by 50 per cent.

Such children test to the limit the capabilities, resourcefulness and resilience of those who care for them - from cook to night staff. Even when all dangerous implements are taken away, some children will find a way. One girl would rub her hands and face into the carpet "until they were a mass of open sores", says Mr Feaver. He and his team of 29 full-time social workers and six teachers can never relax their guard with the dozen 11 to 18-year-old residents.

At first glance, Watling House looks like any smart, modern business premises or health centre. On the inside, too, it is bright and attractive, with plants and paintings, some by students, dotted about. The classrooms are spacious, the bedrooms light and comfortable. A small library provides access to books - even though Mr Feaver was warned when he took the job five years ago that they might be used as weapons. He sticks to a belief that children who are treated with respect will respond in kind.

Security, though, is tight. Every door is locked, and cameras in common areas record every second of life in the home. Some of the children are masters of absconding - that's why they are here.

Mr Feaver's relaxed attitude belies his astuteness and determination to provide the best care and the best education his students will have had. He is highly praised by others in his field. Robert Lake, director of social services in Staffordshire and lead director for youth justice and secure accommodation at the Association of Directors of Social Services, says Mr Feaver has achieved "amazing success with young people with horrendous self-image and self-harming problems".

Kirsty is one of these, a girl sent to Watling House with an advanced form of Munchausen syndrome, in which sufferers create or feign illness to gain attention, and a long history of tying ligatures around her neck. Horrific childhood experiences had left her "desperate" for the attention she received from hospital nurses. Mr Feaver says: "Kids who tie ligatures around their neck rarely want to kill themselves; they want attention. We cut the ligatures and walk away, because if they see adults panic they tend to do it more."

But after one incident, in which Kirsty turned blue and was rushed to hospital, she returned to Watling House with a screw embedded in her arm, a self-mutilation designed to ensure a return visit. He called her bluff. He told Kirsty it was her screw and her arm and she wasn't going back to hospital. He did summon a GP, who took the screw out but supported Mr Feaver's line. This hard-nosed approach marked the first step in Kirsty's recovery. When she realised self-harming no longer provoked the desired response, she stopped. She is now working part-time, having gained GCSEs, and is "enjoying life".

Many of these children have no concept of childhood. Staff aim to build their confidence so they feel it is all right to like childish things.

Hannah, a 13-year-old who suffered post-traumatic stress after witnessing a murder, and subsequently set fire to a children's home, was made to feel safe enough to walk around Watling House with a teddy.

The children who come here receive bespoke care and education. At a cost of more than pound;3,400 a week per child you would expect no less. The cost of keeping someone in a young offenders' institute seems a snip at pound;700 to pound;800 per week, but Mr Feaver believes the investment in getting these children to feel good about themselves, attending to their mental and physical health, and building up trusting relationships is cost-effective.

However monstrous they seem when they come in, he says, they would certainly end up worse if they were simply locked up. Whatever the children have done or become - whether they have raped, murdered, worked as prostitutes (90 per cent of girls who arrive, many from children's homes, have been sexually exploited, and some are admitted for their own protection) or developed into psychopathic, sexual fantasists - staff at Watling House are determined they will be given every opportunity to develop skills and positive attributes. Indeed, they have taken on children no other secure institution will handle.

Their job, says Mr Feaver, is to give children an alternative experience of being cared for and to help them understand their behaviour so they have a "fighting chance of survival".

Mr Feaver abhors the attitude of society towards children who go off the rails. "When children do bad things, society brands them as evil, but in many cases they will have been failed by adults. Children are not born predisposed to evil. When I interview staff I often ask, 'At what point in their lives do you think children lose their innocence?' The answer I seek is, 'When somebody they trusted and loved takes their innocence from them'."

Despite such difficulties, all Watling residents follow the national curriculum at some level and are encouraged and praised at every small step. Author Yvonne Coppard, who visited Watling House under a Book Trust scheme last year, said: "It was a really positive place to be. It gives children a break. It shows them that their lives don't have to be unerringly miserable."

Education is the central core of the care package. The home has received an outstanding Ofsted report, and recently opened art and design and food technology suites. At Friday rewards ceremonies, pupils receive commendations for their efforts and achievements, no matter how minor - in maths, science, English, art, music, IT. Some stride out to take their certificates with pride, others shuffle in embarrassment, some are too awkward to rise from their seats, but all are applauded.

Some, such as Catherine, 17, go on to gain GCSEs. She passed English last summer and intends to take maths and business studies. Several more students are likely to take GCSEs this summer. Catherine has also been encouraged in art and craft and is now a skilful quilt-maker. Her bedroom is draped in pale, silky, exquisitely crafted quilts. She says: "I have achieved loads here that I would never have achieved outside. The staff know you personally. In normal schools that's not possible because there are hundreds of kids. I never went to school."

Nigel Smith, the home's head of education, says that once the students accept they are under lock and key, they cannot run away or take drugs "and they don't have to sleep with men on the street, then they settle down to achieve something".

All children's names have been changed


Oliver Letwin, shadow home secretary, visited Watling House on a recent tour of the UK's prison accommodation. He was impressed with the mix of care and control. Yet this special provision is under threat from legislation that will see more young people remanded for repeat street crime offences. Under Section 130 of the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001, which came into force last September, the courts will be able to remand 12 to 14-year-olds direct to secure accommodation for repeatedly committing non-violent or non-sexual offences - theft or criminal damage - while on bail or in local authority accommodation.

Before this, children came to Watling House through two routes:

* Section 25 of the Children Act 1989 - the so-called welfare route - makes provision for children with a history of absconding or who are likely to abscond and likely to suffer or cause significant harm to themselves and others in any other form of accommodation.

* Spot purchases by the Youth Justice Board under Section 91 of the Criminal Courts Sentencing Act 2000 make provision for young people convicted of a grave offence - including murder, manslaughter, rape, arson, robbery. Once aged 15, most of these youngsters will be moved to a young offenders' institute, but if they are deemed too vulnerable or suicidal they may stay on in a secure home.

There are 30 secure units throughout the UK, and 24 have contracts with the Youth Justice Board for beds for children remanded by the courts. So far, Watling House has resisted such a contract, anxious that places for "vulnerable" children referred through the welfare route should be protected.

Last year, the Youth Justice Board purchased 260 beds in secure homes; this year it says it will require 330, with the likelihood of rising numbers of short-stay sentences. Mr Feaver says: "There will come a point where the system cannot meet these young people's needs. We cannot begin to make an impression on a child in eight weeks or less."

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