The problems with some unregulated settings are by now well documented and familiar to most of us: lack of oversight, minimal key worker contact time for young people, high numbers of out of area placements, frequent placement moves, children being housed alongside adults including those who engage in risk-taking behaviours, properties that are dirty, run-down or lack basic furnishings and at the worst end of the scale, leave children and young people at risk of violence or exploitation.
But many people may not be aware that there are children living in these placements who are completely on their own without even the benefit of a social worker looking out for them – because they have never formally been taken into care and instead were housed through a legal loophole which allows local authorities to provide them with minimal support.
At Just for Kids Law we have been working with these children for many years. Our lawyers and youth advocates regularly take on and win cases on behalf of children who asked their local authority for support as they became homeless aged 16 or 17 and instead of being made a looked after child and under Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 have been placed in unregulated accommodation under housing legislation or Section 17 of the Children Act. This happens even though case law and guidance clearly discourages this practice.
In new research published today, we reveal that 1 in 5 children living in unregulated settings are not looked after. Research commissioned by the Department for Education as part of the consultation on unregulated accommodation which closed last week identified that 6,180 children in care were living in unregulated homes on 31 March 2019. Through Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, we have uncovered at least a further 1,498 children aged 16 or 17 in unregulated settings without being in care. And the real numbers are probably much higher.
The counter argument we sometimes hear is that many young people aged 16 or 17 are able to manage independently and choose not to become looked after. This may be true for a small fraction of young people, but what we see much more commonly in the young people we work with is that they have not had the implications and long term consequences of this life-changing decision fully explained to them. Instead they are told that becoming looked after means having to live with a foster family or having frequent visits from a social worker – neither of which is necessarily the case. One young person was told Section 20 accommodation was not available to her as she was 17 ½. We find young people are being given incorrect or partial information during assessments to deter them from choosing to become looked after and instead push them down the housing route – a significantly cheaper option for local authorities.
The legal status a child is given aged 16 or 17 can have long-term consequences for them as an adult. On turning 18, care leavers are eligible to receive a £2,000 Setting Up Home allowance, a safety net should things go wrong with their accommodation, support from the local authority up to age 25 and priority access to social housing. A child who was not looked after will not be entitled to any of this and may be left to fend for themselves when they turn 18.
These children are invisible in the DfE’s current proposals as part of the consultation yet they have very often had to deal with the same things which lead to children being taken into care, including family breakdown, violence or abuse. It is a form of neglect if their needs are not met by public services and for a policy which increases their vulnerability to remain in place.
We do not believe that any child under 18 should be placed in unregulated accommodation, regardless of which piece of legislation they are being housed under and are urging the Government to make this change as part of its work on unregulated accommodation. We want to see all settings housing under 18s regulated and inspected by Ofsted. We also want DfE to urgently make it clear to local authorities that for a homeless child, becoming looked after should be the default and anything else, an exception.
Right now the Government has the opportunity to remove this harmful legal loophole and make sure that any child aged 16 or 17 who is unable to live with their family has the reassurance that the state will step in as their corporate parent rather than being left living in unsuitable unregulated accommodation or at risk of homelessness and financial insecurity. The Government must act now to protect these children.
*This blog was originally posted by Children & Young People Now.