12 September, 2017
In emergency care (sometimes referred to as commercial care or, previously in the media, ‘kids in motels’) children are housed in temporary accommodation (such as houses and units) by rotating shifts of workers with minimal specialist training employed by commercial providers.
These arrangements are very unsuitable for children in out of home care. They do not support the psychological needs and social development of young, vulnerable and often traumatised children. The circumstances also place them at greater risk of abuse. The Office has observed, and received reports from other sources, of ongoing problems in the quality of care provided for children in emergency care placements.
When the Guardian’s Office started monitoring the circumstances of these children in 2005 they numbered 10 and this grew to a peak of 217 in October 2016.
In 2016-17, based on weekly reports received by the Guardian’s Office:
- the average number of children per night in emergency care was 190
- the average length of stay was 178 days
- about one third of children were 9 years old or younger.
Reviewing emergency care, Commissioner Nyland said ‘Reliance on emergency care by commercial carers should cease in all but genuine emergency circumstances’.
The Government accepted that recommendation and subsequently worked to cease commercial care as a priority. It has attempted to do this by rapidly expanding the number of residential care placements and transferring some existing commercial care environments into Government management. At the same time, the number of children coming into care has increased as the prevention and early intervention strategies designed to support families and children to safely stay together have not yet started to have effect.
Numbers of children and length of stay in emergency care in 2017
A focus on reducing the number of children alone can be problematic. As this graph shows, while numbers of children in emergency care have been reduced, the average length of stay of those remaining has become longer. Further, as the Guardian has commented,
… finding a suitable alternative placement involves much more than just finding a bed. A good placement has to consider not just what is best for the child or young person but what is in the interests of residents who already live in that placement… [The Office has seen] a number of placement changes that were hastily planned and executed, poorly matched and did not involve the input of the children.
For detail about the full range of Government responses to the problems in emergency care see our March 2017 post A place to call home for children in state care – emergency care