Essex County Council admits unlawful practice in turning away homeless children from care

Published: Wednesday 3rd July 2019

Essex County Council has admitted operating a flawed practice of turning homeless children away from care following a successful judicial review challenge brought on behalf of a 16 year old homeless child by Coram Children’s Legal Centre (CCLC), based in Colchester.

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 16 and 17 year old children and young adults 18 and above, who are at risk of homelessness, can access accommodation whilst accessing support in a supported living arrangement.

However, CCLC’s case work, in the case of child D, and those 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 significant protections at a crucial time in their transition to adulthood and without informing the children of their rights and entitlements the Children Act 1989.

When D presented as homeless to Essex County Council, she was not informed of her entitlements to accommodation and on-going social care support. Having come from a difficult family background, D did not want to be placed in family-based foster care and wished to be supported to develop independent living skills in a supported 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.

Essex’s approach directly contradicted the clear intentions of the legislative safeguards and evidence was filed in the judicial review by CCLC to show that the unlawful practice adopted by Essex County Council has had a significant negative effect on homeless young people like D.

Having never previously lived away from home, D had no budgeting experience. For nearly two years before this settlement was reached, D 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 under the Children Act 1989 is a vital safety net of protection for children, including 16 and 17 year olds, who are unable to be cared for by their families. 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. Local authorities are thereby obliged to act as corporate parents and  support the young people to transition to adulthood by providing accommodation, financial and emotional support as well as  access to educational, vocational and employment opportunities.

Essex County Council has apologised for its failures and said that decisions as to the type of accommodation to be provided 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 and  support that can be provided.

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. 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 accordingly. Although no audit will be carried out into the number of children affected by Essex’s 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 the support they are entitled to from Essex.”

The story received press coverage across Essex and also in the Local Government Lawyer.