A teenager was left homeless for several months due to a council’s failure to meet its duty to accommodate him under the Children Act 1989, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.
Kent Council’s failings as the relevant children’s services authority were compounded by those of housing authority Dover Council, which repeatedly failed to accept the young man as homeless. As a result the teenager, known as J, was left homeless from January to October 2009, sleeping on friends’ sofas or in a tent, sometimes in the snow, and as a result his physical and mental health deteriorated.
Ombudsman Anne Seex said the failings were “inexcusable” and called on the councils to pay the man £10,100 in compensation, reflecting the value of the housing he went without for 38 weeks, distress caused and the scale of failure. Both have agreed.
J was known to Kent children’s social services as he had been accommodated under the Children Act from February 2005-March 2007, aged 12-14, before returning to his mother. He went on to receive social work support until early 2008 relating to offending and drug use, and during this time spent long periods away from home, living with known sex offenders. His mother told him to leave home in December 2008 after he objected to her relationship with a drug user.
No Children Act assessment
After J became homeless, a youth centre manager said he contacted Kent children’s services about him three times in early 2009, and was told – wrongly – that the council was not responsible for him because he had turned 16, and that he should approach Dover Council. Though neither Kent nor the youth centre manager had written records of this, the ombudsman believed the manager’s account.
The ombudsman concluded that the council should have assessed J at this stage. The youth centre manager made a written referral to Kent in July 2009, and he was seen by a social worker in August. Though she arranged for him to receive financial support under the Children Act 1989 – confirming he was a child in need – and recognised his urgent need for housing, the council did not accommodate him under section 20. As a result he did not become eligible for leaving care support up to the age of 21.
As well as the compensation, the ombudsman asked Kent to provide J with leaving care support until he turns 21 and to review its arrangements for receiving and recording telephone calls to children’s services to ensure important messages are not missed. It has agreed to do so.
“There’s no mistaking that the system as a whole failed,” said cabinet member for specialist children’s services Jenny Whittle “We accept our role in that and offer our sincerest apologies to this young man.”
She said the council had “largely implemented” the ombudsman’s recommendations and that the way it dealt with homeless teenagers had “changed substantially” following new government guidance in April 2010. The guidance followed the Southwark Judgement in May 2009, which confirmed council’s Children Act duties to homeless 16- and 17-year-olds.
What the law says
Government guidance issued in April 2010 makes clear that councils must accommodate homeless 16- and 17-year-olds under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 if:-
- They are a child in need, meaning they are disabled, or unlikely to achieve or maintain a reasonable standard of health or development without accommodation, and;
- There is no one who has parental responsibility for the child, they have been abandoned, or the person who has been looking for them is unable to provide them with housing.
This duty on children’s services authorities takes precedence over duties on councils under the Housing Act 1996 to provide accommodation for 16- and 17-year-olds who are homeless.
If councils in their capacity as housing authorities are approached by homeless 16- or 17-year-olds, they should provide them with immediate, suitable interim accommodation and refer them to children’s services for an assessment.
If this concludes that the young person should be accommodated under section 20 they become eligible for leaving care support up to the age of 21.
More practice advice on Community Care Inform