Young offenders leaving custody with no home to go to are among the most vulnerable in society. Yet depending where they live, the amount of support these young people receive on release varies widely.
Last summer, a landmark Court of Appeal ruling against Sutton Council found the authority had “side-stepped” its responsibilities to accommodate Jade Saunders (known in court as S) under the Children Act 1989.
The case, taken by the Howard League for Penal Reform, has far-reaching implications for councils. Under section 20 of the act, local authorities have a duty to provide accommodation for children in need. The act defines a child as in need if they are unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without being provided with services by a local authority.
All 16- and 17-year-olds who have either presented themselves as homeless or are deemed to be at risk of being homeless, including young offenders leaving custody with no home to go to, should be subject to a child in need assessment from children’s services. This will determine if they qualify for support under section 20 of the Children Act or are treated as homeless under the Housing Act 1996.
While both outcomes should result in a young person being housed, if they are deemed as qualifying for accommodation under section 20 they also become “looked-after” and therefore entitled to leaving care services. This includes support from a personal adviser and a pathway plan dealing with their accommodation, training, education and health needs.
Chris Callender, assistant director and head of the legal team at the Howard League for Penal Reform, believes all 16-and 17-year-olds coming out of custody with nowhere to stay should be accommodated as children in need under section 20. But he says councils’ definitions of who meets the criteria vary, with some allowing most offenders from this group to qualify and others not.
Definition of vulnerable
David Chater, head of policy at young people’s charity Rainer, says that, even before Saunders’ case, councils should have been accommodating most 16- and 17-year-old young offenders with no home to go to under section 20 because of their vulnerability. But he acknowledges that, in some areas, this has not been the case.
“Councils should not be asking 16- and 17-year-olds to make themselves homeless,” Chater insists. “A lot of young offenders have additional support needs – we are talking about 16- and 17-year-olds who are not going back to the family home.”
Young offenders are vulnerable not only in terms of their welfare needs but also in terms of their risk of committing further crimes, with reoffending rates running at between 70% and 80%. Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction charity Nacro, says that it is unacceptable that some local authorities don’t view the group as being in need.
“It seems to me that somebody coming out of custody is vulnerable for sure. But that doesn’t prevent some local authorities arguing the toss about who is and who isn’t,” he says.
As well as the moral obligation on councils to offer the right level of support to these young people, research commissioned by Rainer last year suggests that improving resettlement services for young offenders also makes financial sense. The study found that providing better resettlement services for 15- to 17-year-olds on detention and training orders in England and Wales could save £80m a year in emergency accommodation costs, the cost of further crimes they would otherwise be likely to commit, and the associated custody costs.
Callender says that last year’s landmark ruling should mean it is now more difficult for councils to designate young offenders leaving custody with no home to go to as homeless rather than looked-after.
He says that Saunders’ situation was “not untypical” she had no circumstances that made her particularly vulnerable, such as being a prolific offender. There are therefore many other similar cases that should now also result in offenders being designated as looked-after children.
“The case clarified what the law was: that a child in need is a child in need and that local authorities actually have to step in and look after the child,” Callender says.
Following the case, Saunders’ situation is much improved. Now treated as a looked-after child, she has her own flat, received a £1,500 start-up grant to furnish it, has not reoffended, and is looking for a job.
Chater agrees that the ruling in the future will make it more difficult for councils to simply designate young offenders leaving custody as homeless.
“The question is how their assessments are carried out and how that judgment is made,” Chater says. “Councils will have to work hard to show that they did the assessment properly and gave young people the full range of options.”
While youth offending teams across England are pleased with the ruling and the higher levels of support it should bring many of their clients, councils are concerned about the cost.
“We are really pleased about the case as we want our young people to get as much support as possible,” one Yot worker in the north of England told Community Care. “But elsewhere in the council people are very worried about the cost implications.”
Another social worker from a Midlands council added: “This case has got lots of authorities really rattled. They are concerned about how much it could cost them.”
The Howard League is now working on several other similar cases involving 16- and 17-year-old young offenders. These include the case of M vs. Hammersmith and Fulham, which went to the House of Lords earlier this month and is awaiting judgment. Many councils are following the case keenly, hoping for further clarification on the issue due to the large resource implications involved.
There is a history of dispute between youth offending teams and children’s services departments over Yots’ claims that some social workers fail to adequately support children once they offend.
“Every Yot will tell you of experiences where social services have abdicated their responsibilities because a child has committed an offence,” says Mike Thomas, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers.
When a young person goes into custody it is best practice for social workers to visit them, but Thomas says there is a tendency for this not to take place, even if they are looked-after. This could be about to change: the Children and Young People’s Bill currently being debated in the House of Lords would place a duty on local authorities to carry out visits to all children in their care who end up in prison.
While the duty has been welcomed, Thomas says it is a “bad reflection” on councils that the government has felt the need to enforce this practice.
Others argue that a visit is not enough if it results in little action. The former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham, tabled an amendment during the bill’s committee stage to strengthen the duty further to require social workers to continue to supervise and provide support to young people under their care while they are in custody. At the time of going to press this had just been rejected by the government but Ramsbotham has vowed to retable it at report stage.
Aside from their need for accommodation, looked-after children and young offenders leaving custody with no home to go to have other similarities, such as an increased likelihood of mental health problems, substance misuse and low educational attainment.
As a result, some argue that all young offenders should be treated as looked-after. A resettlement green paper announced in December as part of the Children’s Plan is set to be published later this year, and Thomas says that ministers have hinted that they may follow this line.
“There’s been a strongly held belief in many circles for some time now that young offenders in custody should be given the same rights as children coming out of care, and the government has hinted at this without coming out and saying it.”
Business Case for Youth Resettlement study
Contact the author