Councils in England are failing to protect children subject to immigration control, including by rarely recognising their poverty as a safeguarding issue, a study has found.
In many of the 26 serious case reviews (SCRs) analysed, practitioners did not understand the implications of families having no recourse to public funds (NRPF), offering them inappropriate advice or refusing support, it found.
The NRPF rule excludes most temporary migrants in the UK from access to benefits, homelessness assistance or social housing through their local authority.
The children in the SCRs studied were often malnourished, lacking access to healthcare, and living in inappropriate or insecure accommodation such as overcrowded housing.
Domestic abuse was present in several cases and was sometimes exacerbated by immigration status. For example, one woman was left financially dependent on the perpetrator after her student visa expired and she was left unable to work or claim benefits, while another was pressured to have a termination by her partner threatening to get her deported.
Despite families’ level of need, services sometimes closed cases before probing further or did not follow up after losing contact with a family.
The study attributed this to the English child protection system’s focus on parental harm, not harm caused by socio-economic factors, such as poverty, immigration status or race.
Prevalence of destitution
Destitution was a prevalent issue across the cases, with a number of reviews mentioning children going hungry. In one SCR, school staff reported children arriving poorly clothed and undernourished, referring them to the school nurse for concerns about their eating.
Many of the families had also experienced homelessness or insecure or inappropriate accommodation, with two reviews mentioning overcrowded housing.
The study said the destitution families faced arising from their NRPF status harmed children and undermined parents’ ability to care for them.
However, when there was no parental abuse or neglect present, destitution was regarded as low risk, it found, resulting in cases being closed following assessment, or assessments not being initiated or being left incomplete.
Some families were refused payments under section 17 of the Children Act 1989 – including on the erroneous ground that it was prohibited by NRPF status. Where these were given, they were sometimes extremely low, for example, £65 a week for a family of three. Accommodation provided under section 17 was also sometimes inappropriate, the study found.
Culture and language factors not addressed
Language barriers often hampered agency responses, but the study found a lack of effort was made to address them.
In some cases, there was an absence of professional interpreters even where the parents did not speak English. Family members were commonly used instead, with implications for confidentiality. In one review, this had contributed to a mother being kept in an “isolated and potentially oppressed position”. Other interpreting practices included using Google Translate, the paper found.
The ethnicity of children was either missing or incomplete in some records. In one case where it was recorded, its impact on the family was given little consideration, while another SCR found race, culture and religion had not been taken into account.
Professionals felt uncomfortable inquiring about cultural background, resulting in assumptions that then informed assessments and plans, reported the study
Inadequate information sharing
Reviews expressed concerns about information sharing, especially when children were moved from area to area, with a lack of notification systems and families being left without details about support services in their new areas.
The report also identified a lack of communication between different agencies, finding that inadequate information sharing between GPs and health visiting services led to a missed opportunity to support a mother and daughter.
However, it also found that “the lack of information sharing for child welfare or safeguarding contrasted sharply with well-developed information-sharing processes for immigration control purposes”.
All but two of the local authorities in the SCRs were members of the NRPF Connect database, enabling them to automatically share information with the Home Office.
The paper concluded that families, at times, avoided professionals for fear of alerting the immigration authorities, adding: “The task of safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is made more difficult when information sharing with immigration authorities takes precedence over communicating with children, their parents and other professionals.”
Lack of understanding of immigration status
Practitioners did not always understand different immigration statuses and the entitlements they entailed, leading to inappropriate advice and support, such as wrongful denial of section 17 payments to destitute families with NRPF.
This lack of knowledge also led to missed opportunities for support, while the report also found that NRPF status brought about suspicion and scepticism that further complicated accessing services.
“An assumption that families were not really destitute and were fraudulent sometimes took precedence over child welfare concerns,” it added.
Procedures ‘do not protect children’
Co-author Dr Andrew Jolly attributed services’ poor practice to a lack of government guidance and the child protection system not fitting well with immigration control.
“There’s an assumption there’s a safety net, which doesn’t exist for these children,” he said “So even if local authorities and other agencies are meeting what’s required of them, there’s still going to be children who slipped through the net because there aren’t protective procedures to support them.”
One case review wrote that, “lawful and efficient responses are not always enough to compensate for the very particular vulnerabilities of the extremely marginalised group represented by those who have no recourse to public funds”.
Jolly added: “I think that is the absolute heart of the issue. Even when organisations are following procedures, the procedures themselves do not protect children in this group.”
The report said that, to effectively safeguard children in families with NRPF, professionals needed to take into account the impact of the poverty and other inequalities arising from their status.
Jolly added: “If a child hasn’t got enough to eat and it’s a result of a parent or caregiver, we know how to respond to that. But when a child doesn’t have enough to eat, and it’s a direct result of structural issues, we don’t know how to respond to it, and we don’t see it as neglectful. But actually, the experiences of that child are the same.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said local authorities have “clear responsibilities to support children in need and in cases where there are child protection concerns. This includes children in families who have no recourse to public funds.”
They added that the DfE’s legal guidance “clearly sets out a range of factors that should be considered when assessing a child’s needs”, including housing, income and employment status.
“We will be setting out ambitious plans to improve children’s social care, which will look at where having no recourse to public funds is a factor in these children’s lives,” they added.
This is a reference to its forthcoming response to three reports on reforming children’s social care, in particular, the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care’s final report. This found that families with no recourse to public funds faced “particular challenges in accessing support from children’s social care, with the proportion of referrals received for these families resulting in services being provided under section 17 varying widely”.
About the study
The study, Children and families with no recourse to public funds: learning from case reviews, was carried out by Dr Andrew Jolly, lecturer in social work at the University of Plymouth, and Anna Gupta, professor of social work at Royal Holloway, University of London.
It identified 26 SCRs in England from the NSPCC national case review repository detailing the deaths or serious abuse of children in families with NRPF, dating from 2006, with 18 published from 2016-21.
When analysing them, the authors focused on the role of NRPF and how it interplayed with children’s other vulnerabilities.
The findings were grouped based on correlative issues detected, such as mental health or housing, and divided into two themes, ‘children’s and family experiences’ and ‘agency responses’.