Children locked up: Who are they? where are they?




At any given time almost fifteen hundred children in England are ‘locked up’ in secure children’s homes, secure training centres, young offenders institutions, mental health wards, and other residential placements, either for their own safety or the safety of others. These are some of the most vulnerable children in the country who, for a variety of reasons, we have not been able to help to live freely in their own homes or communities. The report seeks to identify who these children are and where they living, the costs of keeping them locked up, and to understand more about whether these places are truly meeting their needs.

We have combined data from a range of different sources to show that 1,465 children in England were securely detained in March 2018, of whom 873 were in youth justice settings, 505 were detained under the Mental Health Act, and 87 were in secure children’s homes for their own welfare. In total, we estimate that it costs over £300 million a year to look after these children.

We also found that there are at least 200 children deprived of liberty in other settings, but they are ‘invisible’ to us from publicly available data as no information is published about where they are living or why they need to be there.


Reference:  CCO. (2019). Children locked up: Who are they? where are they? London: CCOE




The Youth Justice System detains children in Young Offender Institutions, Secure Training Centres and Secure Children’s Homes when they have committed certain crimes. Local Authorities can also place children in Secure Children’s Homes in order to keep them safe, and children can be detained under the Mental Health Act in mental health wards if they are suffering from a mental illness and pose a risk to themselves or others

For a child to be in secure mental health accommodation they must be detained under the Mental Health Act. These children are some of the most vulnerable in England. The threshold for detention is high: a child must pose a significant risk of harm to themselves or others, and three specialist clinicians and a social worker must agree there is no less-restrictive setting in which the child can be safely accommodated. 

Secure mental health units are highly restrictive units in which children tend to be held for long periods of time; the Children’s Commissioner has consistently advocated for their use to be minimised with children spending no longer within such units than is strictly necessary. However, when a child’s needs are so acute that they cannot be kept safe in other settings, it is necessary that they have a setting which is both safe and which allows for therapeutic support to be provided. 
The purpose of the Mental Health Act is to provide the protection of the state to people unable to protect themselves, and if a child requires such protection they should be able to access it.



The post of Children’s Children's Commissioner for England was created following a recommendation made by Lord Laming in the Victoria Climbie Inquiry. The role was initially established under the Children Act 2004 which gave the Commissioner responsibility for promoting awareness of the views and interests of children. The Commissioner’s statutory remit includes understanding what children and young people think about things that affect them and encouraging decision makers to always take their best interests into account. Her unique data gathering powers and powers of entry to talk with children and gain evidence, enable her to help bring about long-term change and improvements for children, particularly the most vulnerable.

The Children and Families Act 2014 further strengthened the remit, powers and independence of the Commissioner, and gave her special responsibility for the rights of children who are in or leaving care, living away from home or receiving social care services. She also speaks for wider groups of children on non-devolved issues including immigration (for the whole of the UK) and youth justice (for England and Wales).

As well as a team of staff, the Commissioner is supported by an advisory group, an audit and risk committee and children’s groups, stakeholders and specialists.


Crown copyright material is reproduced here under the Open Government Licence for public sector information.

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