A DELEGATION OF ADULTS who were in care as children have delivered a petition to the Prime Minister, urging him to rectify a recent change to the law which will cause lasting damage to the lives of vulnerable 16- and 17-year-olds in care.

Handing over a petition signed by more than 10,700 care experienced people, family members, foster carers, social workers, children’s lawyers and others who work with, and champion the rights of, children in care, the delegation asked the Prime Minister to ensure that every child in care is provided with a loving, caring home until they are at least 18.

Secondary legislation came into force last September which stops councils putting children in care into properties without any carers or consistent supervision, but only if they are aged 15 years or younger.

The local authority practice of paying companies to accommodate children in care in shared houses, hostels, bedsits, flats and even hotels and caravan parks has mushroomed over the past decade – an increase of 89 per cent between March 2010 and March 2020. During this same period, the number of children in care aged 16 and 17 grew by 38 per cent.

If property owners provide care and accommodation to children, the law requires them to register their establishment with Ofsted and follow children’s homes quality standards. However, owners are able to bypass these legal obligations by only giving children accommodation and support, not care. The new legislation says this is legitimate for 16 and 17 year-olds in care, but younger children must always be cared for.

Twenty-two children in care aged 16 and 17 died in care-less accommodation between 2018 and 2020. The children’s minister has refused to reveal the names of the councils responsible for these children, saying this would identify the children.

A review by the Children’s Commissioner in 2020 found that children in care were frequently living in properties with vulnerable adults who had recently come out of prison, had addictions or were struggling with their own mental health difficulties.

Last year, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel, recently given the task of reviewing the murder of six year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, revealed it had analysed 48 incidents where children had entered care as a result of abuse or neglect and had died or suffered serious harm while in care. It reported that children were entering care in adolescence following “long-term parental abuse and neglect, with significant trauma” and where children entered care as teenagers due to exploitation and involvement in gangs, “these continued once in the care system”.

The education secretary has launched an attendance alliance to ensure children are in school. Meanwhile, there are thousands of teenagers in care studying for their GCSEs who are living in properties where they have to make their own meals, wash their school uniforms and motivate themselves when they are often feeling incredibly isolated and lonely. The Together Trust charity asked councils for data on the number of 16 and 17 year-olds living in care-less properties who were going without education. Replies from 67 councils showed there were 3,253 children in care aged 16 and 17 who were missing education or training all or some of the time.

Over 6,400 16 and 17-year-olds – more than a third of the total number of children this age in care – live in properties without adult carers. These are disproportionately boys and children from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. Research commissioned by the Department for Education reported that four in ten children in care living in care-less accommodation were put there by councils within less than a week of entering care.

Ofsted has published guidance on the difference between care and support, indicating that children in care aged 16 and 17 who are living in properties with support (not care):

  • Regularly have significant periods when there are no staff providing direct supervision.
  • Have the same supervision, support, facilities or restrictions as adults living within the accommodation.
  • Have full responsibility for their medication and health care appointments (Staff do not have access to their medical records).
  • Have full control of their finances.
  • Do not need permission to stay somewhere else overnight.

Annie Gibbs was part of the delegation. She was in and out of care as a toddler when her mother was first ill with what became a terminal illness, and then entered care permanently at the age of eight after her mother died. She said: “Being forced to live independently without emotional support often leads to poor mental health and exploitation, something that I personally experienced. I hope that the Prime Minister responds by mobilising proper investment into truly caring for all the children and young people his government is supposed to be looking after. Children and young people should be able to grow and have great lives, not simply survive.”

Terry Galloway, who spent nearly all of his childhood in care said: “The courts award local authorities care orders for children until they are 18. They are meant to be in education, not becoming victims to criminal gangs, crime and domestic violence. Having been through the system myself, I know first-hand how isolating it is when everything drops away and there is no safety net. My sister was in care with me and was always looking for love. She was preyed upon by predators all her life until she was eventually killed. We can’t be sending our children into the world at 16 with no care.”

Luke Elkins said: “I was in care and then put into semi-independent accommodation from the age of 16. Even though I had support from a great foster family, I found the whole experience extremely difficult. I feel it’s very important we get the reality of this across to decision-makers. Would they want their own children to be living in a place without any care at 16/17?”

Rebekah Pierre, who is now a social worker herself said: “I am part of the delegation because I want to leave the care system in a better state than I found it. Living in care-less accommodation as a child had extremely damaging consequences on my mental and physical well-being, and I know many others went through the same. No child ought to navigate life on their own.”

Sian Davis, who entered care as a teenager said: “I don’t get it, everyone needs support in life, even grown adults, but children need love and care. You are a child until you’re 18 so I don’t understand why anyone would expect a 16 year-old to manage with just certain hours of support. Children need to feel loved and have a sense of belonging. Isn’t it bad enough that some of us missed out on that at the very start of our lives? Don’t cheat us out of it right at the last, and often the hardest, hurdle when we are teenagers.”

* Source: Article 39