Social services failing to support older teenagers who may be homeless

Child S lived in Manchester for 10 months when he was found hanged in bed and breakfast accommodation. Born in Eastern Europe he came to England at the age of 16 with his father to find work. But by the time he arrived in Manchester he had been abandoned, was unable to speak English and had no money.

Too often, reports Richard Shrubb, teenagers in need of support have been ignored by services

Child S lived in Manchester for 10 months when he was found hanged in bed and breakfast accommodation. Born in Eastern Europe he came to England at the age of 16 with his father to find work. But by the time he arrived in Manchester he had been abandoned, was unable to speak English and had no money.

A serious case review into his death found that while he became known to a range of agencies, including children’s social care, health, police, youth offending and charitable services, during his time in the city, because he was 17 he was not always perceived to be a child. He was not assessed as a child-in-need and only his need for accommodation was ever considered.

The case highlights a growing belief within the sector that older teenagers are falling through the cracks in the system and budget cuts are only going to make it worse.

Yet, in theory, the Southwark Judgement, should have paved the way to improving services and transitions to adulthood.

The Southwark Judgement was made in the case of G, a 17-year-old who had fallen out with his mother and was made homeless. He was sleeping on friends’ floors. After seeking legal advice, he demanded that Southwark Council’s children’s services department provide him with accommodation and support under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. The case went to the Law Lords who ruled that councils had a duty to provide support and accommodation to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds whose family support networks have disintegrated.

This means, according to social care lawyer Ed Mitchell, that almost all homeless teenagers need to be assessed as children-in-need which, because they have nowhere to go, will usually mean they become looked-after children. “Looked-after status flows automatically from a child being accommodated. Even if the child does not meet looked-after status, social workers have a legal duty to ensure the child does not have other support needs,” he says.

However, a recent survey of 99 councils, by Inside Housing magazine, found only 27% of 6,677 homeless 16- and 17-year-olds had had their support needs assessed, in addition to housing needs, during the first 10 months of 2010.

Funding shortfall

The reason councils still seem to be struggling partly comes down to funding and sheer numbers. Following the Southwark judgement, the Local Government Association commissioned research which found an extra £91m would be required to provide support and leaving care services to this group. That was the current spate of budget cuts.

But it also appears that social worker judgements and perceptions of risk and resilience among this group could also be playing a role. Safeguarding Young People, a 2010 research report from the University of York’s social policy research unit, the Children’s Society and the NSPCC found teenagers were often perceived as more resilient, more able to cope with the effects of abuse and more likely to disclose it, than younger children.

The report authors pointed out that this perception was not supported by the young people who participated in this research nor by a literature review on the long-term impact of maltreatment.

Enver Solomon, director of policy at The Children’s Society, adds that because there is a lack of services to meet the needs of young people between the age of 14 and 17, some professionals are concerned about making a referral if it is unlikely the child will receive services anyway.

“The resource issue and these perceptions do then have an impact on how much time social workers spend building relationships with this age-group, which has a knock-on impact on how safe a teenager might feel about disclosing abuse or support needs.”

Practical support

Despite the complexities of the legal situation and the paucity of services available, there are some things social care professionals can do to practically support vulnerable teenagers making the transition to adulthood.

Ensuring anyone under 18 has an advocate is a good start, according to Lynn Breckenridge, acting chief executive of the children’s advocacy service Voice.

“Advocates know the law and can represent that to the authorities. Someone in this age group will not understand the law or regulations at all and without an advocate will feel that they must get what they’re given by the system,” she says.

Meanwhile, just involving the young person in the decision-making process can also make a big difference to relationship building, argues Nushra Mansuri, professional children’s officer at the British Association of Social Work (BASW). “Social workers have a responsibility to listen to the child but it can also win the trust of the child, and help get to know what they want from life.”

How professionals should support homeless teenagers

1 Is the child actually a child?

Is an age assessment needed? It should be noted that a child’s immigration status has no bearing on whether or not they are entitled to accommodation under Section 20.

2 Is the child within the authority’s area?

The fact that a child may be ordinarily resident in the area of another local authority is not relevant if the child has presented as homeless in your area. However, councils are entitled to seek costs for accommodation from the original local authority.

3 Is the child a “child-in-need”?

Will the child’s health be affected if services are not provided (both physical and mental health)? Does the child’s development need services (physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development). Is the child disabled (including a mental disorder of any kind)?

4 Does the child require accommodation?

The Law Lords decreed the line between needing “help with accommodation” and needing “accommodation by children’s services” is if a child does have a home to go to – whether on his own or with family or friends – but needs help in getting there, or into it or having it made habitable or safe.

5 Does the child require accommodation for any of these reasons?

● There is no person who has parental responsibility for the child

● The child is lost or has been abandoned

● The person who has been caring for the child has been prevented from providing the child with suitable accommodation or care (the Southwark judgement decrees that this includes children who have been excluded from home through the deliberate decision of the parent).

6 Exceptions

A child would fall under homeless regulations only if they have been living independently for some time, with a job and somewhere to live and without anyone caring for them at all and then lost their home.

Source: Accommodating homeless 16- and 17-year-olds – a guide to the law in the decision of the Law Lords in R (G) v Southwark LBC, Community Care Inform.

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Title Accommodating homeless 16-17 year olds – a guide to the law in the decision of the Law Lords in R (G) v Southwark LBC

Author Ed Mitchell, solicitor and editor of Social Care Law Today

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