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Newsletter Number 25, April 2024

Unregistered Children's Homes

It's only recently, while researching online to update the Child Protection and Safeguarding training I delivered, that I became aware of the full extent of unregistered children's homes in the UK.

During 2022-2023 the BBC's Newsnight programme explored as part of a series the unregulated and unregistered homes being used to house children and young people in care. The investigation established that councils placed 706 children, the majority of them under the age of 16, in their care in homes that were not registered with Ofsted. Most of the providers are private companies that received almost £105m from English councils last year, equating to almost £150,000 per child.

In the UK safeguarding is subject to law. It is necessary for practitioners and those directly supporting children and young people undergo mandatory safeguarding training. This includes being aware and alert to any potential risks facing a care experienced young person that might cause them harm; following the correct protocols and procedures to ensure that the young people in care are kept safe and secure.


Safeguarding policies and procedures exist to make sure that every young person, regardless of their age, gender, sexuality, disability, race, religion, or belief, is protected from harm or maltreatment. Practitioners advocate for their health and development, to ensure that they receive safe and effective care, no matter their background or personal circumstances. Ultimately, the purpose of safeguarding is to ensure that young people feel safe and are safe. They deserve to have lives that are free from abuse, harm and neglect.

Despite these regulations, unregistered ‘secure’ homes have been discovered that are rented houses or flats and short-term holiday lets staffed by agency workers and security guards. Safeguarding training is not always mandatory and the staff who are required to restrain young people are not DBS cleared and authorised by Ofsted. There are even such homes set up in highly dangerous and inappropriate conditions. Children in care are being illegally placed in caravans and boats - BBC News

A local authority Ofsted inspection  in Sefton, Liverpool was critical of the effectiveness of the council’s approach to corporate parenting for children in care, the quality of assessments and planning, the quality of social work visits and health support as well as the provision of suitable placements for children in care.

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An unregistered children's home run in a privately rented flat above a parade of shops

Yet hundreds of extremely vulnerable young people under 16 and in care in English local authorities are being sent to illegal, unregulated homes every year because of a chronic shortage of places in secure local authority units. It is an offence under the Care Standards Act 2000 to operate a children’s home without an Ofsted registration, which should prevent unsuitable individuals from owning, managing or working in homes.


However, it has been discovered that Ofsted didn’t prosecute a single provider in 2022-2023, despite launching 845 investigations into suspected illegal children’s homes. The England children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, said:

“Some of these children will have experienced the worst trauma, abuse and neglect, with multiple and complex needs requiring genuine care – but instead they are placed in inappropriate settings which do not meet their needs, with little say in what happens to them, often miles from loved ones and sometimes denied basic rights like education.”

The illegal care system has expanded in recent years as local authorities have struggled to accommodate increasing numbers of vulnerable children and young people who pose a risk to themselves or others or are being criminally or sexually exploited. Many of these young people with traumatic pasts and histories of absconding are subject to court orders restricting their freedom in order to keep them safe. However, the shortage of secure local authority-run homes that can also provide therapeutic care has left an estimated 50 young people each day awaiting a place.

This has led to a 277% rise in numbers placed in illegal children’s homes in England between 2020 and 2023. The government has pledged to increase funding for secure children’s homes in recent years, including the building of two new secure homes in London and the West Midlands. The chancellor claimed that £165m would be invested over the next four years to increase the capacity for children’s homes placements.

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Young people, at their most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves. They face risks on the streets and just as much risk in the place they must call home. Untrained staff are neither competent  nor trusted to take responsibility for their wellbeing.

Ofsted slammed years of “drift and delay” in Sefton, with their residential provision  described as "a service that was leaving vulnerable children in the borough at risk." Many young people are absconding from these homes rather remain, more willing to take a chance on the threats they face outside than those within. 


Between April 2022 and March 2023, there were a total of 37,094 missing children notifications from social care providers in England. The majority [81%] came from children’s homes. However, the specific number of children who ran away from unregistered care homes during this period was not explicitly mentioned in the data provided.

A missing child is defined as: "Anyone whose whereabouts cannot be established and where the circumstances are out of character or the context suggests the person maybe subject of a crime or at risk of harm to themselves or another".

For young people going missing from care is due to a number of potential push or pull factors. These include:

  • Conflicts with staff and/or peers

  • Physical, emotional, sexual abuse and/or neglect

  • Lack of boundaries or firm boundaries being set

  • Peer pressure or influence by romantic relationships

  • Grooming, criminal and sexual exploitation

  • Trafficking, county lines or used as drug mules


Going missing indicates problems that need further intervention. Young people in unregistered children's homes may well be open to abuse and exploitation in order to feel cared about by someone, by anyone. Without the guidance of qualified and experienced care workers and access to specialist support, they are likely to be at much greater harm.

A 15 year old who absconded from an unregistered children's home in Birmingham reported: "There was no bedding. The house was unsafe. There were no fire exits, no fire doors and there was a mouse infestation. There were older people kicking off. There’d be glass everywhere from people smashing it and self harming. It was a nightmare."

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There are private housing companies who are paid £2,000 per month for one young person to live in the house. Another charged £22,000 a month per child. Other young people suggest that the cost of living in such properties is between £16,000 and £28,00 per month.

It is claimed that one company that started trading in 2014 could earn £74,000 in fees for just six children. The number of young people in a house in Rotherham at any one time varied, but research suggests that they have received more than £7m to house looked-after-children.

Why are unscrupulous landlords and housing companies being able to line their pockets at the expense of the care and wellbeing of care experienced young people? In spite of these large sums of money changing hands, children in care as young as 11 have been housed in properties, being described as semi-independent or supported accommodation, where there are no proper cooking facilities and they don't eat regular hot meals. Toiletries are sometimes not provided and their scant personal belongings are stolen. 

In addition, some young people face imminent eviction with no appropriate alternative housing. In some cases permission for the use of the property as a house of multiple occupation [HMO] or supported accommodation was not granted. Investigators in a London borough stated: "The property has been unlawfully converted into eight self-contained flats. As a result of this, the council has issued an enforcement notice requiring the property to be returned to its lawful use as a single family dwelling."

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For a young person whose lived experiences already leave them carrying trauma, anger and guilt, this is no way to live. They also have their futures stolen; at risk of coercion and the threat of a life of violence, criminalisation and abuse. What they endure will forever impact on their whole life and wellbeing.

There must be greater scrutiny of the effectiveness of local authority's approaches to corporate parenting for young people in care, the quality of assessments and planning, the quality of social work visits and health support as well as the provision of suitable placements. In response to the issues identified in Sefton, Children's Services have examined the changes for children in care as well as the impact of managers on how the services are being run. Inspectors said that while some changes were evident in some areas, the pace of change was not quick enough. ​


This serves to demonstrate that there is a great deal of work to do. With numerous priorities for councils up and down the country, this isn't a problem that can continue to drift and delay no more. The government must, as a matter of urgency, put a stop to unregulated and unregistered children's homes to avoid this devastating impact on young lives.

For further information and advice contact:

  • The Children's Society -

  • NSPCC -

  • Action for Children -

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