Home Office ministers displayed a blatant disregard for the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children last week by suggesting they could be taken out of foster care on their 16th birthday and placed in “more independent living arrangements”, such as shared housing.
By contrast, the Department for Education and Skills’ children in care green paper argues that being left unsupported would be alien to most 16- to 18-year-olds and that most children in care should remain with their foster carers at least until 18.
When Care Matters was published in October, these children received scant attention, namely an acknowledgement that their fate lay in the hands of the Home Office. Early concerns that the result would be a two-tier care system, sadly, now appear warranted.
That is not to say, however, that all the proposals in the Home Office’s long-awaited consultation paper on reforming services for this client group are without merit. Plans to make one in three councils “specialist authorities”, so the children are placed only in areas where there are adequate services, make sense. And efforts to support closer working and better information-sharing between social workers and immigration officials are to be welcomed.
The concern, though, is that underlying everything is the Home Office’s refusal to spend any extra money on services for this group.
Officials are only too aware that local authorities will not put themselves forward to become specialist authorities if they think they will be landed with a large bill for leaving care services a couple of years later. Yet rather than reach into its pockets to fund these costs centrally, the Home Office has chosen to try to eliminate them by doing whatever is necessary to ensure that fewer unaccompanied asylum-seeking children will remain in the UK beyond their 18th birthday. Whatever one may think about the tactics, it must not affect the level of care and support the children are offered.
The government keeps telling us that every child matters. Social workers have an important job to do in ensuring that immigration officials understand that message too.
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