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16.12.14

Charity accuses councils of failing to protect vulnerable children

Children are sleeping in cars, on the street and in drug-dens because councils are failing to protect them, according to a homeless children’s advocacy charity.

These failures to comply with legal duties to protect teenagers are leaving this vulnerable group homeless and at risk from abuse, says a new report from Coram Voice.

Children’s services must assess any child who presents as homeless or at risk of immediate homelessness. The child should be accommodated while the assessment is being carried out and, in most cases, should then be taken into care.

In 2013-14, Coram Voice helped over 200 children and young people to challenge decisions by children’s services which had led to them becoming homeless.

Its director Andrew Radford said: “We meet far too many children who have been forced to leave their homes, normally because of violence, or abuse or family breakdown. They have asked their local authority children’s services departments for help, but they get turned away and end up homeless.”

‘The Door Is Closed’ details the experiences of 40 of those children and young people. At the time of contacting Coram Voice, 80% were either still children or had recently turned 18, but in all cases their situation had been known by their local authority while they were children, and none had been taken into care.

Instead, Coram Voice reports that Children’s Services were often telling children to go back to their families or leave them to ‘sofa surf’ – a euphemism used to cover a range of unsafe environments, such as sleeping in tents and cars, on night busses, in police cells, drug-dens or with strangers.

When these options aren’t available, children can be passed to the local authority housing department – which may try to accommodate them in hostels for vulnerable adults and without any of the additional support needed by children in care.

The report says: “Safeguarding concerns are being missed. Children report becoming homeless because of violence in the home, being sexually exploited or threatened by gangs. Once homeless, they face a greater risk of being robbed, threatened and attacked, as well as facing the health problems that result from sleeping rough and not having enough food.”

Sara Gomes, a Coram Voice advocate who has been helping get children housed, said: “Families break down again and children leave home again, ending up at risk of harm and exploitation. And many children who say they are sofa surfing are actually sleeping on night buses, with strangers, or in drug dens.”

Children placed in hostels often report that they feel threatened by other residents and so end up street homeless again.

Of the 40 cases reviewed, 10 were children who were known to children’s social care but had not been taken into care; 22 were young adults who had been known to children’s social care as being homeless when they were children but had not been taken into care.

Those who are still aged under 18, and therefore still children, can be helped relatively easily. Organisations like Coram Voice can insist that local authorities carry out a proper assessment, and take the children into care.

For young adults, however, the situation gets worse. Once children turn 18, local authorities close their cases. Without a previous care status, young people do not have status as care leavers, and so cannot access the support to which care leaver status would entitle them, so they remain homeless. If they try to get their cases re-opened, they just encounter a bureaucratic brick wall.

One solicitor interviewed for the report said: “The general attitude towards these children who are suffering obvious maltreatment is ‘go home and stop bothering us’. There are Rotherham-type child protection failures… Some local authorities are challenged over and over again – they know what the law is and they know what they should be doing, but deliberately don’t do it. They only start to engage when they get a legal challenge.”

‘The Door Is Closed’ points out that child and youth homelessness tends to be considered simply as a lack of housing, rather than a situation of high risk that can significantly undermine children’s personal development, physical and mental health, and have lasting detrimental impacts on their life chances.

A young person told Coram Voice: “Things got better when the solicitor forced social services to take on my case. I was homeless. I had nowhere to go. Social services helped me only because they didn’t want to go to court… I was not of an age to do anything. Social services should have done what they ended up doing: found me somewhere to live temporarily until I was settled.”

The report also points out that statutory guidance states homeless children should be offered advocacy to help them understand procedures and make informed choices about their rights, but according to Coram Voice they are rarely offered this service.

“When they find out that they have this right and ask for advocacy, they are too often turned away by services that will not help them precisely because they are not – and never were – in care: the very issue that they are asking for help with,” the report says.

The Local Government Association said children’s social care was “one of the biggest challenges” facing councils, and that using emergency accommodation was just one of "a range of measures" councils use, which also includes "a strong emphasis on preventing homelessness occurring in the first place".

"We must learn from this practice to ensure that all children are given support through accommodation and care that is appropriate, safe, and tailored towards their individual needs," a spokesman said.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the London Councils said any failure to fully support vulnerable children was "unacceptable".

"Local authorities in London have put £160m in additional resources into children's services despite a 44% cut to their funding over the last five years," the spokesman added.

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