Nowhere left to go

Unable to live at home with her mother, a teenage girl who has been in care is fast running out of options. Our panel advises

Case study
The names of the service user and her family have been changed

Lana Borrows had spent two years in care when she was 13 after a breakdown in her relationship with her mother, Michelle (her father was no longer part of their life). She returned home to Michelle but they struggled to get on. Michelle disagreed with how Lana would spend her time and claimed she only ever used the house as a “doss house” – somewhere to eat, change and sleep. When Lana turned 17 she left home but had nowhere to go.

Lana spent the first few weeks “sofa surfing” at friends’ houses but the novelty soon wore off. She felt she was intruding in their lives and had to move out. She started sleeping rough. Feeling depressed and vulnerable (she was sexually assaulted twice), she contacted her former social worker, who found Lana a place in a supported housing scheme. However, she couldn’t get on with the other young people there and, following numerous incidents and scuffles, she was evicted after her third warning and went back on the streets. Her social worker suggested applying to the council as homeless because, at 17, she should be classed as a priority need. She was provided with temporary accommodation while the housing team carried out an assessment. However, the council has decided that, by causing problems, Lana has made herself intentionally homeless. She has been given four weeks to quit her accommodation.

Practice panel Warrington Council, social services and housing department
Patrick Melia: Senior practitioner, leaving care
Carolyn Connor: Team manager, over-12s team and leaving care
Julia Donnelly: Leaving care worker
Lisa Jamieson: Team manager, fostering and adoption
Sue Buffel: Social worker, over-12s team

Panel responses

Patrick Melia
Additional support could be accessed under section 17 of the Children Act 2004 (Every Child Matters). However, the services provided will be a power not a duty and will be at the discretion of the relevant authority.

As there have been several incidents since formal statutory involvement, an initial assessment would be useful to establish Lana’s immediate needs. This would identify previous levels of support and networks of support from family or friends. Also, the primary agency will be able to provide evidence of the concerns when placing any referrals on Lana’s behalf.

Information obtained through the assessment should by a child-in-need meeting inviting relevant services which can help achieve the five outcomes (be healthy stay safe enjoy and achieve make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being) within the Every Child Matters framework. The assessment and child-in-need meeting may link relevant services and explore Lana’s behaviour to ensure issues are addressed.

Accessing support should also encompass the difficulties Lana has experienced with regard to depression and incidents of sexual assault. These elements place an even greater need to ensure good accommodation is identified within this corporate and child-centred approach.

Access to youth services, health, Connexions and other mainstream services will offer a crucial contribution in offering a holistic package of support in addressing Lana’s experiences.

A return to the family home with additional support should be explored. Lana and her mother should be offered every opportunity to gauge the viability of this. Failing that, support should be again directed towards local authority housing with a plan to address previous concerns.

If the housing service maintains that Lana is intentionally homeless, thereby annulling its duty to provide accommodation, then children’s services should strongly advocate that Lana be deemed a vulnerable young person and entitled to priority status. Social services should review the service and continue to pursue alternative housing, possibly through the voluntary services. A women’s refuge, which would specialise in providing this level of care, could be an option.

Carolyn Connor
Lana does not meet the criteria for a leaving care service because, under the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the local authority would have a duty to finance and provide accommodation for her.

Nonetheless, Lana is still a child in need and should be assessed as such. Before a child-in-need meeting takes place, I would suggest a pathway plan assessment explores Lana’s independence skills to gain a better picture of how she would cope independently.

Lana would need to be involved in this plan. I would initially approach family members, including her mother, to see whether there was any possibility of Lana returning to the family home. If this were feasible, a support package would be needed. This could work only if Lana agreed and co-operated and would include engaging her with Connexions and so on, and trying to put some routine back into her life.

If Lana could not return home, alternative accommodation would be sought. The accommodation would have to be agreed at the child-in-need meeting. A keyworker would be identified at this point to provide support in seeking accommodation and monitoring her progress.

As for accommodation, I feel that a more corporate approach should be taken. The housing department may deem that she has made herself intentionally homeless, but this is a convenient excuse in some cases.

Often, leaving care and Children Act legislation are in direct conflict with housing legislation and this causes difficulties when trying to advocate for a young person. Lana is homeless and under 18 and deemed as vulnerable. Regardless of her “intentionally homeless” status she needs accommodation, and the authority has a duty to provide it. Lana may not feel settled in a hostel and may, with support, find supported lodgings more suitable.

Lana may also have outstanding issues that have not been addressed in terms of the sexual assault she suffered. This could be the root of her anxiety and of some of the unacceptable behaviour that was shown in the previous accommodation. A private discussion about this should ideally take place between her former social worker (with whom she is the most familiar) and options for counselling discussed with Lana.

User view

It is important to acknowledge that Lana’s problems are far more complex and involved than just needing a roof over her head, writes Mark Houston.

It seems that, probably because of her difficult childhood, she has problems in relating to and living closely alongside other people. Nevertheless, finding accommodation for her must be a priority. She is clearly vulnerable and, if homeless again, she is susceptible to exploitation which would cause her yet more psychological damage. Bearing in mind the shortage of housing provision, it could prove difficult to find the “perfect” place within four weeks.

Supported housing could still be a good way forward. A more specialist provision, which is geared up for people like Lana, could work well.

I can appreciate the housing department’s conclusion that she is “intentionally homeless”. But, given Lana’s background and social difficulties, I think they are making an unfair judgement. I would suggest that Lana’s social worker advocates on her behalf and explains why the teenager is in priority need.

Her difficulties in her previous supported accommodation would indicate that she needs help in developing social skills.

Referring her to mental health services could also be helpful – for example, she may benefit from anger management support. Targeted youth support (through which she is supported to mix with her peers outside a stigmatised service) could also be beneficial. Low self-esteem is likely to be a big part of her problems – while she is depressed, she will have a negative outlook on life, which will make it more difficult for her to progress.

Lana may also benefit from undertaking voluntary work or further education courses or both. It would help her to focus her mind and see that she can do something constructive. Praising her when she succeeds is important too.

Lana will need support to maintain some contact with Michelle. However, the breakdown of the relationship is still raw and so this would not be a priority in the short-term. Furthermore, at 17, she does need her independence.

Wherever Lana moves on to, there is going to be a transition stage which could be disruptive. It is important that her social worker arranges support for her during this difficult time. As soon as problems begin to arise (however minor), support is needed there and then, to prevent the problems escalating into unmanageable situations.

Mark Houston is a care leaver


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