“It’s a national scandal that thousands of vulnerable homeless 16- and 17-year-olds are being placed in harms way by being housed with adults in unsafe accommodation and not given the additional care and support they are entitled to. We know from our work that these findings are just the tip of the iceberg and children are being failed every day. It’s crucial that the Government ensures that all local authorities meet their legal obligations towards these children, by taking them into care, and provides councils with the adequate resources to do so.”
Louise King, Director of Policy and Campaigns, Just for Kids Law
Today BBC’s Newsnight shines a spotlight on the thousands of homeless 16- and 17-year-olds children who are not taken into care. Just for Kids Law has been supporting children who have been denied their right to be taken into care despite being homeless for the past decade and highlighted this issue in our report ‘Not in Care, Not Counted’ in 2020. We’re really pleased that Newsnight are shining a light on this very concerning practice and have interviewed our Director of Policy and Campaigns, Louise King on the programme.
Legal guidance and case law states that in the vast majority of cases homeless 16-and 17-year-olds should be taken into care by the local authority and housed under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989, which entitles them to support as a care leaver up to the age of 25. However, these children are wrongly housed under different legislation - provisions intended for adults and not vulnerable children - which gives them fewer longer-term rights and financial stability. Find out more about the law and entitlements in our guide for homeless 16-17 year olds.
Vulnerable homeless children are missing out on vital support
In our legal and advocacy work, we support children who are homeless because they have suffered domestic abuse, violence or neglect and desperately need the state to act as their parent and look after them by providing a caring home. Instead, these children are wrongfully housed under different legislation (Section 17 of the Children Act or the Housing Act 1996).
The housing provided under this legislation can include hostels and supported accommodation that can be dirty and unsafe. Children may also be forced to live alongside adults who are involved in alcohol or substance misuse or with minimal adult supervision, leaving them exposed to exploitation or abuse. Sadly, as the recent cases highlighted on Newsnight show, the consequences of this on children’s lives can be fatal.
In addition, a child housed under Section 20 will become a care leaver on turning 18 with a right to financial allowances, support from the local authority up to age 25 and priority access to social housing. However, for children housed under alternative legislation, turning 18 means being thrust into adulthood with no support and being left at an even higher risk of becoming homeless.
How many children in England are not receiving the correct support?
In 2020 as part of research for our ‘Not in Care, Not Counted’ report we sent FOI requests to all local authorities in England which revealed that an estimated 2,585 16-and 17-year-olds in 2018-2019 were not housed under the correct children’s legislation.
BBC Newsnight resubmitted these same FOIs to local authorities and found that sadly three years later, the figures remain roughly the same. It is important to recognise that these FOIs are just the tip of the iceberg. The figures do not include children who are subject to ‘gatekeeping’ sent away without being accommodated – which from our experience at Just for Kids Law is likely to be a significant number of children.
JfKL’s experience of supporting children
In Just for Kids Law’s decades of representing these children, we find the vast majority of local authorities conceded following action from our legal team showing that this is often about local ‘gatekeeping’ – or limiting access to - resources. Without our involvement these children would not have access to the services, accommodation and support they are entitled to.
“For local authorities it is a numbers game – if they turn away ten young people, two may get legal support but that is still eight they have managed to avoid giving full entitlement.” Just for Kids Law youth advocate
What needs to change
At the crux of the issue is the lack of resources in local authorities, lack of placement sufficiency and perceptions that 16–17-year-olds should live independently. In particular, when resources are tight, 16-and 17-year-olds are sadly not regarded as a priority which as well as placing them in harms’ way also has long term detrimental consequences. But 16- and 17-year-olds are still children and are entitled to be treated as such under the law.
We are calling for all homeless children to be housed under Section 20 of the Children Act as a default position, unless they have explicitly said they do not want to be after being made fully aware of their rights and entitlements. Homeless 16-and 17-year-olds should always have access to an independent advocate to make them aware of their rights and entitlements and support them to make decisions about the type of support they receive from the local authority.
Download ‘Not in Care, Not Counted’
Download our guide for professionals supporting homeless 16-and 17-year-olds with Homeless Link
 Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and Department for Education (2018) Joint statutory guidance - Prevention of homelessness and provision of accommodation for 16- and 17-year-old young people who may be homeless and/or require accommodation 6 R (G) v Southwark  UKHL 26