Essex County Council has admitted operating a flawed practice of turning homeless children away from care in breach of section 20 of the Children Act 1989, following a successful judicial review challenge brought on behalf of a 16 year old homeless child, D, by Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC).
The court challenge initiated by CCLC related to the Essex Young People’s Partnership (EYPP), a housing gateway introduced by Essex County Council’s Social Services Department in June 2017. The EYPP is understood to be a gateway through which homeless children and young adults who are at risk of homelessness can access accommodation whilst accessing support in a supported living arrangement.
However, CCLC’s case work, in D’s case, and cases of other homeless children, revealed that Essex County Council was using the EYPP gateway to avoid assuming duties of care to 16 and 17 year old homeless children, diverting them away from the significant protections and benefits of long-term social care support at a crucial time in their transition to adulthood. Essex was doing this without informing the children of their rights and entitlements as ‘looked after’ children under sections 20 and 22 Children Act 1989.
Homeless teenagers made to sign away their rights
When D presented as homeless to Essex County Council, she was not informed of her entitlements to accommodation and ongoing social care support. She did not want to be in foster care and was told that if she wanted input from the local authority she had to be placed in foster care. Having come from a difficult family background, D did not want to be put in another family environment and wished to be supported to develop independent living skills in a supported living arrangement. However Essex County Council told her that she did not have entitlements to social care input if she refused to be placed in foster care. She was asked to sign away her rights to social care input.
D had never previously lived away from home. She had no budgeting experience and did not know how to manage her benefits, daily living needs and her vocational and education training without social care support to guide her to acquire these skills. For nearly two years before this settlement was reached, D was frequently at risk of and actually experienced rent and service charge arrears as a result and was unable to access educational opportunities.
Essex has admitted that what they told D about her entitlements was wrong. The ‘Looked After Child’ regime was put in place by Parliament under sections 20 and 22 of the Children Act 1989 with the specific intention of it acting a safety net of protection for children, including 16 and 17 year olds, who are unable to be cared for by their families because of family breakdowns or risks of harm within the family home. The legislation provides that accommodation of any type can be arranged for a homeless child so long as it has proper regard to the child’s needs and best interests. Local authorities are, in this context, obliged to act as corporate parents and fill the gap left by absent families to support the young people to transition to adulthood, including by providing accommodation, financial and emotional support as well as opportunities to access educational, vocational and employment opportunities.
Essex’s approach diverted homeless children away from benefiting from the protections afforded under the ‘Looked After Child’ regime, and directly contradicted the clear intentions of the legislative safeguards.
The legal challenge
In the judicial review, evidence was filed by CCLC to show that the unlawful practice adopted by Essex County Council of diverting homeless children away from social care input by offering EYPP accommodation has a significant negative effect on homeless young people like D:
- Young people are placed on a tenancy or licence and therefore put in a position where they have to claim benefits, including Housing Benefit to pay for their rent and subsistence needs. Many of these young people have no budgeting experience and struggle to cope with the limited support offered through EYPP placements, for example often only receiving one hour of one to one keyworker support per week.
- No support is provided to the young people to prepare them for adulthood in circumstances where the very reasons why they became homeless were because of family breakdowns and risks of harm within the family environment.
- When these young people turn 18, they are without the same protections and benefits that care leavers who had been cared for by the local authority, including being given priority need for council accommodation, getting leaving care grants and education and vocational training support up to the age of 25.
Essex County Council has apologised for its failures and said that going forward, decisions as to the type of accommodation to be provided in line with section 20 of the Children Act 1989 are now being made without any involvement of the EYPP. It has also embarked on training of its social workers involved in assessing 16 and 17 year old children to ensure they are aware of the range of accommodation that can be provided and the support they can receive.
Kelly Everett, Senior Solicitor at Coram Children’s Legal Centre, said:
This settlement agreement provides D with important protections and support just as she turns 18 this summer. In addition, we hope that this also ensures that other 16 and 17 year old homeless children who ask Essex to help them will not face the same obstacles as D.
Since the inception of the EYPP in June 2017, we at Coram have represented a number of 16 and 17 year old children who, like D, have not only needed accommodation but also emotional and material support from Essex children’s services but been diverted away from these protections based on misinformation about their entitlements under s.20 Children Act 1989. This has meant that these children were without support at a crucial point in their adolescent years.
We are extremely pleased that Essex has accepted that it needs to amend its flawed practices and that it will train its social workers. Although no audit will be carried out into the number of children affected by Essex’ practices, it is our hope that other children who were denied the protections under the Children Act 1989 will now be able to come forward and seek reinstatement of their support from Essex.
Shu Shin Luh, barrister at Garden Court Chambers, representing D said:
This case serves as an important reminder to local authorities about the purpose of the protections that Parliament legislated under the Children Act 1989. For most young people the idea of being left unsupported at a crucial time when they are approaching the 18th birthday would be completely alien. Most children have a sense of security and know that their parents will always be there for them and that their families are only ever a phone call away and stand ready to offer financial support and advice, or a place to stay if they need it. For some young people, social services support is their safety net. Even in times of austerity, this safety net must work to protect those most in need. It is a positive step forward that the local authority has now agreed to train its social workers and improve its practices.
D was represented by Shu Shin Luh and Tessa Buchanan of Garden Court Chambers, instructed by Kelly Everett of Coram Children’s Legal Centre.
Should information or advice be required on this issue, contact Coram Children’s Legal Centre’s Legal Practice Unit on 01206 714650.