Practitioner Declan Henry, social worker
Field Young offenders
Location South east England
Client Kyle*, 16, who is on a referral order.
Case History At his first court appearance Kyle was placed on a referral order, having been found guilty of burglary. He had committed the offence to fund his cannabis addiction. Before the court appearance, he was living with his mother, but she evicted him from the family home.
Dilemma It is unclear how much of a support Kyle’s mother can be. The social worker is facing a decision on whether to actively involve her.
Risk factor Kyle relies on the generosity of friends and their parents to provide him with somewhere to stay. His insecure housing situation places him at a higher risk of re-offending.
Outcome Despite a difficult start, Kyle settled into supported accommodation. With other support in place, overseen by the youth offending team social worker, Kyle has stayed out of trouble and is rebuilding his relationship with his mother.
*Not his real name
As a social worker in a youth offending team, Declan Henry is all too aware of the difficulties faced by young offenders when they are homeless. Kyle is one.
“Kyle was in court for burglary,” says Henry. “He had stolen to fund his cannabis addiction and was put on a referral order, which is a final chance for first-time offenders. It’s a short, sharp intervention intended to prevent re-offending.
But soon after his court appearance his relationship with his mother broke down. She evicted him from the house, making him homeless.”
It is an increasingly common problem in Henry’s experience and something he is scathing about. “What annoys me is that parents will evict children and expect the local authority to look after them,” he says.
“They renege on their parental responsibility and there seems to be a growing number of parents who ask their children to leave the family home when they reach 16. This is the sixth case of mine in the past year where parents have thrown their children out.”
Fortunately, Henry acknowledges that the situation has improved this year after a landmark judgement made by the Law Lords in May, which stated that children’s services departments have a duty to assess young homeless people, rather than this being carried out by generic housing departments.
Henry says that in the past the accommodation provided was generally unsuitable and placements broke down. “Young people were often placed in grotty bed and breakfast accommodation, sometimes alongside older, more hardened, offenders with drug and alcohol problems,” he says.
“Child in need” assessment
The local authority’s children’s services team assessed Kyle as a “child in need” and agreed to find him accommodation. “It’s a much better system now,” says Henry. “Support is often attached to the accommodation. In Kyle’s case, there is someone there to support him with shopping and make sure that the money is spent on food rather than on something else.”
With Kyle’s housing issues resolved, Henry worked with him to address his offending behaviour. Henry recognised that behind the surly exterior was a vulnerable young person who needed support that he was not getting from his family.
“He is quite withdrawn and has poor communication skills,” he says. “The youth offending team see people on a referral order every two weeks. But when there are a lot of issues we see them more often. At that time I made sure I made extra visits to him.”
Henry also realised that Kyle had low self-esteem and suspected that his cannabis use was masking depression.
“Young people are more reluctant to admit their depression than their cannabis use,” he says. With this in mind, Henry arranged a referral to a specialist drug counselling service that has been able to help him with his addiction.
Henry instinctively felt Kyle’s mother ought to be given the chance to be involved. Eventually he negotiated with her to contribute a weekly sum to her son’s outgoings and now Kyle is slowly rebuilding his relationship with her.
Kyle’s prospects look good, according to Henry. “He seems more settled and is complying with appointments, and we’re now trying to get him on a suitable training course,” he says.
Although there have been improvements, Henry’s optimism is tempered by experience. “Situations like this can change so quickly,” he says. “Kyle’s on a maximum referral order and if he re-offends things will get much more serious. It’s still early days with him, so we can’t be complacent.”
Weighing up the risks
Arguments for taking the risk
● Multi-agency approach allows expert input. There is always a risk of Kyle re-offending, but with several sources of support in place, this should be minimised. This multi-agency approach allows Kyle to access expertise from a range of specialist services.
● Children’s services have role to play. The intervention involves the children’s services department, something that has resulted in positive outcomes in several other cases.
● Twin-track approach pays off Henry opted for a twin-track approach which involved support services and Kyle’s mother. He reasoned that it was usually in the best interests of the young person to involve their family. Arguments for taking the risk
Arguments against taking the risk
● Confusion about roles and responsibilities There are several agencies involved. Without careful co-ordination, there is a risk of misunderstandings or duplication of effort. If not properly managed, this could lead to confusion about roles and responsibilities in Kyle’s support.
● Dependency on services Having intensive support might set up a culture where Kyle becomes dependent on services, rather than developing self-reliance.
● Will the mother be a positive influence? Knowing what is best for Kyle is a difficult call. His mother has been lacking in a responsible approach to parenting to date. It is uncertain how positive an influence she will be on Kyle’s rehabilitation.
Henry is presented here with every practitioner’s nightmare. It is not possible to address someone’s offending behaviour when a basic need such as housing is not addressed first.
The extra home visits and sessions above the minimum national standards by Henry are commendable. Provided that Kyle is not learning helplessness and the sessions are empowering and practical, it is appropriate to provide additional support as long as it is in the context of a responsible ending to the intervention.
It is important to be careful with language when describing clients and evidencing your assessment. The link between cannabis, self-esteem and depression in particular needs to be evidenced.
The recent judgement relating to young people’s homelessness is set to make significant changes to young people’s access to accommodation and this will be a benefit to practitioners in the situation described here, albeit at a considerable cost to local authorities.
However, young people can still be deemed as intentionally homeless and Kyle’s independent living skills need to take a priority to avoid returning back to square one.
Dean Woodward, assistant director of Lambeth Specialist Youth Services
This article is published in the 22 October issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Disowned by mother at age 16