Deprivation of liberty orders – “Care or incarceration?”

Court measures which place children under severe restrictions due to concerns about their welfare are being used to deprive them of their liberty according to the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO).

NJFO has identified 1,249 children in the year to June 2023 were subject to deprivation of liberty orders (DoL) and live with severe restrictions on their day to day freedoms.

The data has been collected from the national deprivation of liberty court, at the Royal Courts of Justice. Although DoL orders are intended as a temporary measure, NJFO found that more than two thirds of children deprived of their liberty in the first two months of the court (July and August 2022) were still subject to the order six months later.

The increase in the number of DoL orders is likely to have been impacted by increasing numbers of older children coming into care, reductions in the number of children placed in youth custody, the closure of secure children’s homes, and falling numbers of inpatient child mental health beds

Analysis of the first 12 months of data from the new DoL court shows that almost all of the children were subject to constant supervision, often by more than one adult, and the use of restraint was permitted in more than two-thirds of cases. While almost 60% were aged 15 or over, a small but significant number of applications (9.3%) were for children under 13.

The research also shows that 97% of children were already in care at the time of the DoL application and that more than half had experienced the breakdown of multiple placements. Tow thirds were reported to have experienced ongoing exposure to issues in the family home, including neglect, abuse and parental substance misuse.

Lisa Harker, director of Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said:

“We have to ask, is this care or incarceration? Our evidence shows that these are some of our most vulnerable children. Many have faced ongoing trauma, or have learning and physical disabilities, or are at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation, and their needs are simply not being met, and at worst more damage is being done.

“The number of children deprived of their liberty in unregulated placements has substantially increased in recent years, possibly more than doubled since 2020/21 according to the data available to us – illustrating an urgent need to rethink how we care for children with complex needs.

“There is no simple solution – but we must start with what we know about these children and the care they need to keep them safe and have meaningful lives.”

The report can be read in full here.

In order to support the change needed, Nuffield FJO has developed five principles of care in collaboration with a panel of leading academics which are available now from the NFJO website.


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