The missing link

    Keeble draws comparisons between a case in her Northampton
    constituency and the circumstances in which Victoria Climbie was
    living. In Northampton, two young boys were living in a one-bedroom
    flat with a man who said he was their father, although there was no
    proof of his identity. Marie Therese Kouao passed Victoria off as
    her daughter, and they ended up living in a one-bedroom flat with
    Kouao’s new boyfriend, Carl Manning.

    In cases like these, identifying their carer should be a matter of
    urgency. “The initial problem is of impersonation,” says Keeble.
    “All the documents are genuine but the people carrying them aren’t.
    A lot of housing officers have a good common sense understanding
    [of child protection] but that’s different from being properly
    trained. They need to be much quicker to spot what’s happening with
    children and make sure there is proper social services involvement
    and that they know where those children are going. They also need
    procedures so they can refer on any specific child protection
    concerns.”

    Also, the quality of accommodation for children continues to be a
    major concern. Victoria’s initial contact was with Ealing housing
    department’s homeless persons’ unit, which placed her and Kouao in
    a hostel. The hostel was described during the inquiry into her
    death as “ill-equipped, dirty, cramped and not suitable for a
    child”. Yet, several years after her death, vulnerable children are
    still being placed in inappropriate temporary accommodation, in
    some cases in hostels which also house offenders and people with
    mental health, drug or alcohol problems.

    Keeble welcomes the bill’s emphasis on joint work between education
    and social services. “It’s fine to have social services and
    education tied up, and I don’t want to minimise the importance of
    education’s involvement. But a lot of the children most at risk
    will not be at school because they are too young, are kept at home
    or they are moved around a lot.”

    Keeble believes the involvement of housing is essential and she is
    not alone in this view. Children’s minister Margaret Hodge and
    Commission for Social Care Inspection chair Denise Platt agree that
    the government has failed to adequately address issues around
    housing. Such high-level support may mean that Keeble’s amendment
    to the Children Bill has every chance of success. The amendment is
    due to be tabled when the bill reaches the House of Commons,
    probably in the next few weeks.

    Despite the enthusiasm for last-minute changes, many observers were
    surprised, as well as disappointed, that housing was not firmly
    tied in as part of the solution in the first place. Homelessness is
    commonly identified as one of the highest risk factors in child
    protection issues and many homeless people are parents with
    children. Additionally, housing is often the first port of call for
    these families, as it was for Victoria Climbi’, or the only contact
    families have with professionals, so it is vital that housing
    officers can recognise risks and respond to them.

    Frequent moves contribute to the problem. Families are often forced
    to move several times before they are offered permanent housing, so
    can easily lose contact with services. The onset of a child
    protection investigation may prompt families to move abruptly and
    without notice. So unless housing and social services co-operate
    effectively, a vulnerable child ends up in a different area where
    the authorities are unaware of previous problems.

    Homelessness charity Shelter believes that children in temporary
    accommodation are more at risk than those in permanent housing.
    This is because they are likely to be living in poor or overcrowded
    conditions where they can become distanced from services. Even if
    they are in contact with social services, it’s quite likely that
    they will lose that contact at a later stage or they won’t be
    allocated a social worker.

    Helen Lewis, Shelter’s policy officer, says: “The disappointing
    thing about Every Child Matters [the green paper that
    preceded the Children Bill] is that it recognises that children who
    are badly housed are at risk, but when it comes down to it,
    partnership working doesn’t seem to include housing, apart from
    basic information sharing. The bill doesn’t exclude the possibility
    that housing can be involved in decision-making but it’s an option,
    rather than a central part.”

    Consequently, Lewis believes housing is not in people’s minds when
    they talk about child protection. This has left an inconsistency
    between what’s happening in the Children Bill and what has happened
    in the Homelessness Act 2002 and Supporting People, where housing
    is recognised as an essential and integral part of multi-agency
    working.

    A report from Shelter last year found that one of the outcomes of
    poor joint working between health and social services working with
    homeless families was that children could be threatened with being
    taken into care.1 This is because the duty to house
    people lies with the housing department. Even if they are found to
    be intentionally homeless they must be provided with temporary
    accommodation for 28 days. In cases where children are involved,
    social services departments have powers to assist under section 17
    of the Children Act 1989. The problem is that the wording –
    “powers” rather than “duties” – leaves room for different
    interpretation. There have been cases when social services have
    said they are responsible for the children only, not the family as
    a whole. The children are then taken into care unnecessarily to
    prevent them becoming homeless while the parents fend for
    themselves.

    To address this, Shelter lobbied for, and got, an amendment in the
    Adoption and Children Act 2002 which strengthened the powers of
    social services in such cases. But last year, in three cases heard
    in the House of Lords, the judges decided that housing
    responsibilities were for housing authorities, not social services.
    They ruled that if parents had become intentionally homeless the
    local authority was within its rights to accommodate the children
    only. Judge Lord Scott went so far as to say that parents could not
    use children “as stepping stones” to obtain a greater priority to
    be re-housed than they would otherwise be entitled.

    Lewis says: “This means it will be lawful for authorities to limit
    their response in these circumstances to ‘offering’ to take the
    children into care.”

    This raises the prospect of homeless families being forced to
    choose either to be separated or to find potentially unsuitable
    solutions to their homelessness.

    “It is not in the child’s interests and goes contrary to the spirit
    of the Children Bill and its joined-up working, child-centred
    approach,” says Lewis.

    Ultimately the answer may be personal, rather than legislative.
    Housing bodies and social services need to work better together on
    a personal level – possibly through local decisions to co-locate
    teams, conduct joint training on child protection and make it a
    priority to gain a better understanding of the requirements and
    responsibilities of each professional group.

    And this clearly cannot happen soon enough. The response of the
    National Housing Federation – a powerful national membership
    organisation for housing associations – when asked to contribute to
    this article was “child protection is something we don’t know
    about”.

    1 H Lewis, Healthy
    Relationships: Health and Social Services Engagement in
    Homelessness Strategies and Services
    , Shelter,
    2003

    More from Community Care

    Comments are closed.