Vulnerable children locked up and ‘gravely damaged by the state’, former top family judge warns

Vulnerable children with complex needs are being locked up in unregulated settings and are being “seriously harmed by the State” while their parents are driven to desperation, according to the former top family judge in England and Wales. Sir James Munby calls the failure to provide safe and therapeutic homes “a shocking moral failure”.

According to the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, the number of applications for “deprivation of liberty” orders for children suffering from psychological and behavioral difficulties reached 1,368 last year.

Writing in theObserverMunby, immediate past president of the high court’s family division, said the skyrocketing of requests for this draconian measure was a sad reflection of the catastrophic lack of support for children whose complex needs often lead to self-harm and attempted suicide. suicide.

Lashing out at the government, which he said “has failed to address the serious lack of adequate provisions”, Munby referred to “dozens and dozens” of judgments expressing the concerns of his fellow judges, which have been published from his own “blood on our hands”. ruling on a 17-year-old girl named “X”, who made national headlines in 2017.

A report by news site Tortoise Media last year showed that “any help X received came too late to save her,” Munby said. Barely 20 years old, X (who was not a criminal) was eventually imprisoned in a high-security mental health hospital, where she remains.

“Seven years after my ruling on his case, the situation for other children across the country is even worse than I dared to fear,” he warned.

In 2021, the Supreme Court described the plight of these children as “A scandal that contains all the ingredients of a tragedy.”. Persistent efforts over years by journalists to publicize the escalating crisis have meant that no one can ever claim the scandal is hidden, Munby writes, citing the BBC’s recent “shocking” investigation, which interviewed children about their “heartbreaking” experiences of being forced. detained in inappropriate places under deprivation of liberty orders.

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He Observer recently reported on hundreds of very vulnerable children being sent to unregulated homes due to a chronic shortage of safe local authority units.

Meanwhile, the government has done nothing substantial or of value to help these most vulnerable children, Munby says.

His successor, Sir Andrew McFarlane, attempted last year to involve the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, in the situation of another suicidal teenager for whom a safe therapeutic placement could not be found.

In a highly unusual move, McFarlane asked Keegan to come to court. After rejecting his request to be excused, his published judgment expressed his “genuine surprise and genuine dismay that the issue has apparently not been addressed in any meaningful way in parliament, in government or in wider public debate”.

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McFarlane said: “I noted that it was shocking to see that the Department of Education seemed to simply be washing its hands of this chronic problem.”

Munby warns that the numerous published judgments about distressed and damaged children detained without contact with the outside world “paint a picture of a system unable to cope with the growing number of young people with emotional and behavioral difficulties, almost always born of trauma or neglect in childhood”.

When a system routinely locks vulnerable children in highly inappropriate environments, the country faces “another shocking moral failure: a moral failure of the state and society,” he says, before questioning whether either side would address the issue during the process. electoral campaign.

This article was amended on 9 June 2024. Due to an editing error, an earlier version said Gillian Keegan refused to go to court when ordered to do so by Sir Andrew McFarlane. In fact, she asked for an apology and when they denied it she sent a representative for her. Furthermore, McFarlane was the former Chief Family Judge of England and Wales, not just England.

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