Drugs, drink and children going missing - what inspectors found in Norfolk’s worst children’s homes
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Millions of taxpayers' pounds are being spent on housing vulnerable children in homes criticised by inspectors.
More than a quarter of all children's homes in Norfolk and Suffolk have been judged 'inadequate' or 'require improvement' by Ofsted - the two lowest of four possible ratings.
Norfolk County Council said only a small number of the 1,200 children in its care are in private care homes and the 'vast majority' of those homes were good. Nine children's homes in Norfolk - a quarter - are rated 'outstanding'.
The homes, for children taken into care, are staffed around the clock, but our investigation found:
•Children are taking drugs, regularly running away and at risk in some private homes
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•Children at one home made 'flame throwers' from hairspray and set fire to walls
•Another home has been banned from taking new placements
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•Eight out of 36 homes in Norfolk are either 'inadequate' or 'require improvement'.
North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said: 'Any organisation that gets involved in this sector has to meet the highest possible standards. The consequences of lax standards are very significant for the future of any child.'
One children's home at residential school, Acorn Park near Diss, was rated 'inadequate' in August.
The school itself is rated 'good', but inspectors banned the home from taking any new residents after finding 'serious failures'.
It said several staff members had been suspended. 'The number of allegations against staff presents a very worrying picture,' they added.
In September when Ofsted returned they said there had been improvements.
Norfolk County Council has a contract worth an estimated £38m with the firm.
A council spokesman said it only paid when it placed children at the homes.
Acorn has not responded to requests for comment.
Another company used by the council, PCT Care Services, ran a home in Lowestoft called Ballard House rated 'inadequate'.
The home has now closed after inspectors raised concerns.
They found children regularly went missing and a child was at risk of sexual exploitation.
The firm was paid around £260,000 by Norfolk County Council's children's services in the first nine months of this year.
The company has another home in Bacton which was rated as 'requires improvement' in May. Inspectors found 'hazardous' items including broken furniture.
Director Michael Millage said PCT Care closed Ballard House because it was 'extremely disappointed' with the rating.
Regarding its other home, he said they had 'put in place a schedule of works'.
At another Norfolk home, run by a firm called Stanfield Care Services, inspectors in September found children were 'regularly using cannabis and smoking'.
It added there were a 'significant' number of children running away, as they rated it 'requires improvement'.
The firm did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Cambian, one of the biggest children's homes companies in the country, has two homes in Norfolk with low ratings. The firm has a contract worth an estimated £6m with the council.
Rating one of its Norfolk homes 'inadequate' in May this year, inspectors said children drank alcohol and left at night without staff noticing.
In one case a child was in a supermarket with two staff members, but managed to steal alcohol, drink it and then climbed on to the roof while drunk.
When inspectors returned in August they said progress had been and they upped its rating to 'requires improvement'.
Cambian's other home in Norfolk is also rated as 'requires improvement'.
A spokesman for Cambian said: 'We have made changes to our local management arrangements, have clear ongoing quality improvement plans for both homes and are working to return these to a standard that we expect.'
Norfolk County Council runs nine children's homes itself.
Three are rated 'outstanding', four are 'good' and two as 'requires improvement'.
Inspectors in August found children witnessed 'inappropriate behaviour' and had been offered cannabis at one of the homes.
'Robust improvement plans have been put in place,' a council spokesman said.
•What the council says
A council spokesman said: 'Our Norfolk County Council care homes have a good track record.
'We have no inadequate homes and our staff provide round the clock care for some of the most vulnerable children in the county.
'A small number of our children are placed in private care homes and the vast majority provide good care and support.
'On the rare occasions a home is judged as inadequate, we will look at whether to move the children living there.
'However, sometimes children can be settled and happy in a placement and the move can do more harm than good.
'We are looking to find alternatives to residential care and developing new ways to recruit foster carers.
'We carry out regular monitoring visits.'
•Flamethrowers in closed homes
Some of the inspectors' most damning findings were at homes which have now shut.
A firm called Keys, which now has a contract worth an estimated £5.8m with Norfolk County Council, ran a home which was short of staff, with employees working 'excessively long hours', a 2016 inspection found.
Children made flamethrowers, set fire to the walls and tried to set a school building alight.
Keys has since changed its management, closed the home, and runs one home in Norfolk rated 'good'.
Another closed home run by Stanfield Care Services is now shut after inspectors in 2016 found 'widespread failings'.
'Staff feel overwhelmed and exhausted,' they wrote, with young people put in 'unsafe' situations.
Inspectors said: '(One) young person accesses cannabis, is known to frequent addresses of concern and has associations of concern with community members.'
•Council under fire in Suffolk
In Suffolk, eight out of the county's 20 children's homes are rated as 'inadequate' or 'requires improvement' - including two run by the county council.
The running of those homes has become a political issue after they both received damning reports in the last two months.
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said in October the reports were 'devastating'.
Inspectors found sexualised behaviour, children going missing and bullying.
The councils other three homes are rated as 'good'.
It also uses private home providers.
One of the main ones it uses is called Achieving Aspirations CIC, which has two homes, both rated as 'requires improvement'.
A spokesman for Suffolk County Council said: 'We conduct regular contract reviews.'
In Cambridgeshire around a third of homes are rated 'requires improvement, while and Essex a fifth are.
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