New Bill could see looked-after child caseloads rise

The Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill has had its first reading in the House of Commons. Here Ed Mitchell and Dean Woodward look at theimplications for councils

The  Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill  has had its first reading in the House of Commons. Here, Ed Mitchell and Dean Woodward look at the implications for local authorities

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Ed Mitchell: ‘Increase in caseloads likely’

An increase in the older looked-after population. Two new entry points to looked-after status will be created by the Bill. First, any child in youth detention accommodation would be a looked-after child. Second, the Bill would repeal the Criminal Justice Act 1948 provisions on prison remands for 17-year-olds. Instead, the remands would be to either local authority accommodation or youth detention accommodation. In both cases, the children become looked after by the council.

Care planning challenges. Authorities will face practical difficulties in providing care planning, review and leaving care services to children who are detained far from their families.

For 17-year-olds newly remanded to local authority accommodation (rather than prison), existing care planning assumptions may need modifying.

In England, parental placements are statutorily preferred to all other placements. Because these 17-year-olds are unlikely to be at risk from their parents, it will be difficult to refuse a parental placement unless a court prohibits an authority placing a child with a named person.

Turf wars. The Bill gives courts an uncertain test for determining which local authority is responsible for a child. Unless a child is already looked after, the responsible authority will be either where the child habitually resides or the one where the offending behaviour took place.

The Bill does not state which authority is to be preferred when offending takes place away from a child’s home area. If this part of the Bill is enacted, we may see inter-authority disputes over who should have responsibility for a child.

Leaving care entitlements. Where older children are looked after for more than 13 weeks, they generally attain full rights to leaving-care services. It seems clear, therefore, that the Bill will lead to an increase in many councils’ leaving-care caseloads.

Ed Mitchell is a solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today

Dean Woodward: ‘Danger of perverse incentives’

Many will be surprised at how few looked-after children make up a youth offending team’s (YOT) client list. Typically it is less than 10% of YOT clients who are looked after.

It is clear the Bill will increase looked-after children numbers significantly. In the London Borough of Lambeth it will equate to about 50 extra children coming into the system each year. However, most of them will be 16 and 17, living at home and the overwhelming majority will not be at risk of abuse or neglect so they will be taken out of care on their release and their cases closed.

The dilemma – and the cost – comes with those young offenders who commit more serious offences and are in custody for longer than three months when they will become eligible for leaving care support.

A main cost to the local authority in supporting a care leaver is their entitlement to accommodation, typically through a council tenancy when they turn 18. The funding need flowing from this change will be enormous. It will also create a perverse incentive for young people to offend in order to acquire their own independent accommodation. It would be a tragic irony if young people were given such an incentive.

Transferring cases between YOTs will also require a complex financial agreement to transfer funds between councils – such as if the ex-young offender moved borough.

In recent years we have been able to separate offending behaviour from welfare need. Social workers have also reduced the number of young people coming into care and targeted resources on those most at risk of neglect and abuse. This Bill may see a sad step backwards.

Dean Woodward is assistant director of Lambeth Specialist Youth Services

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