Home discomfort

Raised voices and slammed doors are routine for many families
with teenagers. Generally, parents grit their teeth and tell
themselves it’s a difficult time for their offspring as they
struggle with approaching adulthood.

But sometimes relationships deteriorate so badly that the teenager
wants, or is forced, to leave home. The causes are often similar to
those that result in a child being looked after, such as abuse,
pregnancy, divorce, or not getting on with step-parents.

Mediation can be the answer if the damage isn’t beyond repair. And
even if the relationship is irretrievable, mediation can still help
reduce conflict. Over recent years Twickenham-based charity
Mediation in Divorce (MID), affiliated to National Family
Mediation, has broadened its work beyond its name. In conjunction
with Hounslow Council’s housing department it runs the Opening
Doors project to help those aged 16 and above presenting as
homeless or at risk of homelessness because they are not getting on
with their parents. Last year it saw about 150 young people.

All young people who present to Hounslow Council as homeless, or at
risk of it, are given an appointment with a MID mediator. The
council funds this initial stage of the process. It was spurred
into looking at new ways of working with this age group after the
Homelessness Act 2002 introduced a requirement on local authorities
to give priority to 16 and 17 year olds in need of housing.

Margaret Pendlebury, professional practice consultant and a MID
mediator, stresses that because the charity is not part of the
council’s housing services, it can remain independent. “We look at
what has led to this situation, what options there are,” she says.
“We don’t report the conversation to the housing officers. It’s an
opportunity for clients to think through what’s happened and what
needs to happen.”

Pregnancy is the most common reason behind parental evictions,
along with friction with step-parents and teenagers’

A mediator meets the young person and ideally the person who is
evicting them to explore whether further mediation will help. If
appropriate there is another meeting of all parties. “The aim of
this is two-fold,” says Pendlebury. “To look at whether it’s
possible to repair the relationship enough to mean that they don’t
have to move out, or if that isn’t possible – and very often it
isn’t – to help them work out how to deal with the immediate

This is vital as council housing will not be offered immediately.
“We want to preserve the relationships and get them to a point
that, even if they do move out, it’s possible for the parent to
remain supportive,” she adds.

Alongside the mediation a housing officer is responsible for the
case and will be making inquiries to establish whether the housing
department has a duty to house them. If it does, teenagers will be
initially offered temporary accommodation or advice, leading
eventually to permanent council housing for some.

“From the housing department’s point of view it wants to
investigate whether it’s a ruse to get a house,” says Pendlebury.
“Our experience is that people are rarely pulling a fast one. These
are people who, because of a combination of difficult
circumstances, think desperate measures are called for.”

Most are from low income families, many are already in council
housing, or living in deprived conditions. “The best we can do is
pull them back from crisis so that the teenager can move out in a
planned way, rather than thinking they have to do it tomorrow,” she

Richmond Council also refers to the Opening Doors project. But
unlike Hounslow, young people presenting as homeless can choose to
see a MID mediator – they are not expected to. If they prefer not
to go down the mediation route, the council’s dedicated young
people’s housing officer, Alanna Heavingham, will talk to people in
the family home to try to negotiate a solution.

The number of young people the council sees has gone up fourfold
since 16 and 17 year olds were given priority need. Between April
2003 and this month, it had seen 99 clients in this age group and
has accepted just over half as its responsibility. This points to
the success rate in negotiating with parents to allow children to
stay at home, says Ken Emerson, manager of the homeless and housing
advice service at Richmond Council.

Obtaining permanent council housing can take up to 12 months and in
the meantime, teenagers are placed in temporary accommodation. “We
are concerned about young people being in bed and breakfast
accommodation because that is not a supported environment,” says

Consequently, the council has increased the amount of supported
places it has on offer: it leases one property from a housing
association solely for young people. One of the three resettlement
officers who deal with young people spends time here each week
going through budgeting skills. The council also places pregnant
girls at a hostel for teenage parents run by a charity. And it uses
two other hostels which have close links with Connexions where the
resettlement team offers surgeries where teenagers can talk through
their problems.

“We are trying to help young people with life skills but we don’t
want to send out the wrong signal,” says Emerson. It has been known
for young people to make themselves intentionally homeless if they
see their friend obtaining housing and help from the council, he
adds. “We would much rather young people stayed at home for

Unfortunately, 95 per cent of homeless teenagers have been evicted
by their parents. Emerson cites the case of one teenager who
reported his parents to social services for abusing another
sibling. As a result, they threw him out and the council ended up
accommodating him.

On a more positive note, Emerson knows of several cases where a
move into temporary accommodation makes the teenager either realise
that they aren’t ready to live on their or own, or that they can
resolve differences with their parents. One 17-year-old girl went
to MID. At the time no progress could be made because her mother
did not want her back. She stayed in one of the hostels for a few
months and during that time, managed to patch up her differences
with her mother who allowed her to return home.

Another 16-year-old girl declined mediation before she was
temporarily housed. She started a relationship with another young
person’s boyfriend which led to a strained situation. She ended up
asking her mother if she could go back home after deciding that
dealing with everything on her own was much harder than she had

For those who don’t turn to their local housing department, a
favourite option is to live with friends, boyfriends or girlfriends
without parental consent, or stay with friends of their parents.
Although these arrangements tend to be informal, technically they
are private fostering which councils should know about. And
teenagers estranged from their families are becoming the largest
privately fostered group, a trend that runs counter to the belief
that private fostering mainly concerns children from west Africa
sent to the UK for a better life.

Councils now have a duty to raise awareness among the local
community that they need to be notified of private fostering
arrangements. Progress is slow but Swindon and Gloucestershire
councils, which are leading the way in this work, have been
receiving an increasing number of calls about the issue.

Swindon has about 200 looked-after children and up to 25 privately
fostered young people at any one time; only about eight of these
are west African. Angus Geddes, a senior social worker at Swindon
Council’s family placement team, says: “I don’t believe that we are
exceptional, so my hypothesis is that there are hundreds or
thousands of privately fostered teenagers in the country.

“A good proportion of children who come into this category are
messed up in the same ways that we have found children who are
looked after are,” he says. “This isn’t something that can be

And Geddes hasn’t. He has started to use the psychological
questionnaire for looked-after children, contained in the
Department of Health framework of assessment of need, on privately
fostered children. In Swindon, the questionnaire suggests that 70
per cent of looked-after children have significant emotional needs.
Privately fostered teenagers are now showing similar results. “That
illustrates pretty clearly that this is a group of children with
significant needs,” says Geddes.

Two other issues could cause local authorities a headache. Geddes
has had several parents contact him because they don’t want their
child staying with friends. But the council has to prove that the
friend’s parent is unsuitable, otherwise it is powerless to do

“That is going to take some time to do. In these situations if the
child wants to stay with someone who you can’t prove is unsuitable,
then there’s not a lot you or their parent can do.”

He can see no immediate solution to this quandary, because if
private fostering was made illegal without parental consent, some
teenagers would find it hard to escape abusive parents.

Equally complicated is the matter of funding. Private fostering
ceases to be an official arrangement once a teenager turns 16,
raising the issue of whether local authorities should have the same
statutory duty to this group as they leave private fostering, as
they do to those coming out of local authority foster care.

“What happens to children who were formerly privately fostered is a
bit vague,” says Geddes.

Reports from mediation

“Client able to consider the possibility of renting a room at
the home of a friend, if he could get help to pay costs. Also
recalled a paternal uncle who’d been very supportive, especially of
his studies, and wondered if he’d help.”

 “Client evicted by parents after repeated criminal activity.
Family acknowledged long-standing problems and consequently
undertook several months of family therapy through a charity in

A mother and daughter were not getting on because of the
daughter’s boyfriend. During mediation the mother “pledged to
support her daughter whether she stayed at home or moved out to
live with boyfriend. Signposted the daughter to domestic violence
support agencies”.

“Clients did a lot of talking to each other, both in tears.
Relief to have a conversation instead of angry words.
Unfortunately, agreed that ‘culturally’ unacceptable for daughter
to remain at home now pregnant, but both committed to future of
mutual support.”   

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