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Evaluation of the outcomes of secure accommodation in Scotland


Background. Locking up children is a serious intervention and there are widely varying policies and practices across Europe. Secure accommodation straddles both child welfare and youth justice systems and its complexity is reflected in the wide range of young people who enter its door. A key challenge for secure accommodation, then, is to cater effectively for this diverse group of young people. In recent years in Scotland, between 200 and 250 young people have been admitted to secure care each year; with about 90 in placement at any one time. Recent policy and service developments have focused on developing capacity, both through increasing overall provision and enhancing the service within each individual unit.
This paper will present the findings of a three year, Scottish Executive funded study involving a research team from the Universities of Stirling, Strathclyde and Glasgow, aimed at developing an understanding of the use and effectiveness of secure accommo¬da¬¬tion in Scotland.

Method. The study involved a range of data collection methods and included:

  • tracking 53 young people from admission to secure accommodation over a 24 month people. Initial data was collected from records and interviews held with social workers, key workers and some young people. Updates on progress were obtained from social workers at two points, approximately 12 and 24 months after admission;
  • similar information was collated on 23 young people considered for secure accommodation but sustained in an open setting for at least 6 months;
  • interviews took place with key stakeholders in social work, the Children's Hearings system and secure accommodation services.

Key findings. The main reasons for admission to secure accommodation were: 'danger to self' - 47 (89%); 'likely to abscond' - 39 (73%); 'danger to others' - 18 (34%); 'persistent offending' - 6 (11%); 'serious offence(s)' - 2 (4%). It is evident that care placements and other service provision had not been able to halt what was viewed as dangerous and often self-destructive behaviour on the part of the young person.
Outcomes for young people at the point when the placement ended were gained from social workers. The impact on the young person was assessed as having 'clear benefits' for 33 young people (62%) and 'some benefits alongside some drawbacks' for 20 young people (38%). All young people were considered to have been kept safe and, with good personal care, to be healthier. Improvements in behaviour which had prompted the secure placement were noted in relation to 58 per cent of the young people. Placements were considered particularly ineffectual in addressing drug misuse.
Approximately two years after admission outcomes were rated as good, medium or poor, based on: whether the young person was in a safe and stable placement; whether they were in work or education; whether the behaviour which resulted in their admission had been modified; social worker's rating of their general well-being compared with that on admission. Young people whose rating was positive on all four dimensions were considered to have had a good outcome. Where at least one was negative the rating was medium and where no aspects were positive, the outcome was considered to be poor. On this basis, outcomes were assessed as follows: 'good' - 14 (26%); 'medium' - 24 (45%); and 'poor' - 15 (28%).
It has to be emphasised that good or poor outcomes are the result of a wide range of influences: the impact of the secure placement; support for the young person following placement; and the nature and level of the young person's difficulties. Continuing drug and offending was linked with the poorest outcomes.
Social workers generally attributed a good outcome more to an appropriate placement and education being offered when the young person left secure accommodation rather than simply the placement itself. Nevertheless, it was considered highly beneficial if a young person was able to establish a good relationship with a key worker.
The term 'step-down approach' was used by a number of social workers to refer to the practice of gradually returning young people to a more open and less supportive setting. Such an approach was clearly associated with better outcomes.
No particular approach can guarantee success, but the most salient theme is that young people respond well when offered continuity and the opportunity to develop relationships with one or more reliable adults. Some young people needed more specia¬lised help than secure units were able to offer. Sustaining improvement after secure care normally required a graduated transition, which kept in place some of the close support provided in secure.

Key recommendations. Three key resources would reduce the need for secure accommodation and produce better outcomes for young people after leaving: residential provision which could manage young people in crisis; intensive community-based support; and social work and project staff who were able to effectively gauge and manage risk.
The use and effectiveness of secure accommodation was highly context specific, and secure provision and 'alternatives' to secure were complementary services. This needs to be taken into account in strategic planning at local and national level.
There can never be a straightforward answer to how many secure beds are required. The need for secure placements is related to capacity to manage risk within open residential provision and community support services.

Key references
Walker, M., Barclay, A., Hunter, L., Kendrick, A., Malloch, M., Hill, M. & McIvor, G. (2006). Secure Accommodation in Scotland: Its Role and Relationship with 'Alternative' Services. Edinburgh: Scottish Executive. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/

Contacts: Andrew Kendrick, Scottish Institute of Residential Child Care, Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde, Jordanhill Campus, 76 Southbrae Drive, Glasgow, G13 1PP, E-mail: andrew.kendrick@strath.ac.uk, Phone +44 (0) 141 950 3037.

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