Courtesy of the Local Government Ombudsman and Shelter, we have joint and several occupants of the naughty step.
Welcome to the Step to Kent County Council and Dover District Council. (I know that some of you read NL)
The account below is summarised from the Ombudsman’s report. It is presented without comment until the end, not least because I would otherwise run out of expletives very early on. The occasional italics of exasperation are, however, mine.
J became homeless when he was 16. He had been in care under Kent County Council, but had been returned to live with his mother, who had significant mental health problems. This was apparently because she requested his return after she was asked to make a financial contribution to his foster care. As J was under 16, Kent had no continuing s.20 duty unless J was once more a child in need. J’s evidence was that after returning to his mother’s, his situation had been highly unstable, and he had been put in situations with known sex offenders and drug users (J had a history of drug issues as a teenager, which he had worked to overcome). J’s mother threw him out at 16 after he objected to her relationship with an intravenous drug user, in December 2008.
After spending Christmas on friend’s sofas, J applied to Dover District Council for housing. He was offered temporary accommodation but he said that he would not accept B&B in central Dover. J’s stated reason was because this would return him to contact with people associated with his earlier criminal behaviour and drug use. Dover said it had no other accommodation to offer – it only had B&B for 16 and 17 year olds – and nothing further was done on J’s homeless application. No investigations, no s.184 decision, no other offers of temporary accommodation, no referral to Kent Children’s Services. Nothing. This despite a joint working protocol between Kent and Dover which set out the procedure for referrals of homeless under 18s to Kent Children’s Services. The reason Dover gave for this was a suggestion that J had left the office saying he ‘would sort himself out’.
Between January and June 2009, J mostly slept in a tent in various parts of Kent. His tent was vandalised often. There was heavy snow in February. Conditions were dreadful. J had stored some of his possession at a voluntary centre, which also provide meals and some support to J. His evidence was that he had sold or given away his possession to friends who let him stay for a while.
The manager of the Youth Centre approached Kent Children’s Services on at least 3 occasions in the first half of 2009, reporting J’s circumstances. Kent Children’s Services did precisely nothing. According to the manager, they told him they weren’t responsible because J was over 16 and he should go to Dover Housing.
In June 2009, the Centre Manager heard that Dover housing had taken on a specialist youth housing advisor and tried to refer J. The housing advisor met J and asked him if he would accept B&B in Dover, Ashford or Folkstone. J said he wouldn’t, as he had also been involved in drugs and crime in Ashford and Folkstone as well as Dover, so he did not want to be in circumstances that would return him to his past circles. In addition, Ashford and Folkstone were too far away from his baby daughter so he would not be able to visit.
According to the housing advisor, at this time Dover would only offer B&B in Dover, Folstone or Ashford as temporary accommodation. If these were refused, the Council would make no further offers and deem the applicant intentionally homeless. She did not complete a homeless application for J ‘because he would not accept a B&B in Dover’. She thought J preferred not to make an application and to stay in his tent. She did not give J a s.184 decision. J said he did not realise that this conversation meant Dover would not actually deal with his homeless application.
The housing officer claimed to have done some further investigation and found that J was a child in need and ‘a relevant child’ (though he wasn’t at that point). She told J she would contact Kent Children’s Services. She didn’t. She continued not to after herself being contacted by a police officer, the Youth Offending Service, a drug and offending service and the YMCA about their concerns about J’s homelessness in early July 2009.
On 10 July 2009, Dover gave J 164 points on the housing register, apparently a high level. On 15 July 2009, the youth centre manager made a formal referral of J to Kent as a child in need. Apparently the housing officer agreed to this because the youth centre manager ‘knew [J's] situation better than she did’.
Shelter contacted Dover on 5 August – Dover had orally told J that ‘he would need a guarantor to get a lease on a property’. Shelter wrote expressing concerns that Dover insisted that under 18s should have to get a guarantor on 7 August. Also on 7 August 2009, J was seen by a social worker. The social worker apparently considered J’s situation to be dire, sorted out financial help under s.17 Children Act, but thought ‘he would be placed in a B&B very quickly and this would bring him some immediate relief’. She thought Kent had had no contact with J since 2008 and did not consider s.20 Children Act accommodation.
Dover’s housing officer tried to find available B&B in Deal or Sandwich, but they were full. She anyway hadn’t yet got authority for Dover to pay for B&B.
Kent’s social worker completed a core assessment on 13 August. This identified J’s need for housing and said:
He has 164 points and has been offered a one bedroom flat but has no access to a guarantor, thus preventing him from securing the tenancy. The Council [Dover] accept he cannot live in Dover due to the people there who would escalate the risk of him resuming drug abuse. Bed and Breakfast in Deal or Sandwich (where he would be safe) is too expensive for Dover DC to fund. [...] He is struggling against a system that is not flexible enough to meet his housing needs.
The social worker did not know about the joint protocol between Kent and Dover for under 18s.
On 14 August, Dover offered J a one bed flat in Deal. J wrote turning the offer down on 19 August stating that on the advice of the police and other agencies he could not accept the offer as the area was known to have problems with drug users. In any event there was the demand for a guarantor and he had not been able to find one.
On 18 August Kent Children’s Services told Dover that Kent would act as guarantor to J for £1000 until he was 18. The Youth Centre Manager had already agreed to guarantee £500. J’s mental health was deteriorating over this time. His GP referred him to a mental health service.
Dover indicated to Kent that they were not prepared to accept Kent or the youth centre as guarantors. They didn’t say why.
On 4 September Dover offered J another one bed property in deal. He accepted it immediately. Dover still kept refusing to commit on the guarantee. Despite telling Shelter on 10 September that they would accept the £1000 from Kent, Dover then told Kent that £1000 was not enough and the guarantee had to be from an individual, not an organisation.
On 21 September, Dover said the offer would be withdrawn unless J found a suitable guarantor. Shelter then threatened legal action (presumably JR) against both Dover and Kent.
Following that threat, on 29 September, Dover accepted J’s homeless application and placed him in a B&B in Deal. On 1 October Dover said they would accept Kent’s guarantee and would hold the flat offerer for J. On 12 October 2009, Dover accepted the full housing duty to J. Also, on 9 October Kent arranged a multi agency Child in Need meeting to co-ordinate support to J in his new flat. J moved in on 12 October, the day of Dover’s s.184 decision.
I am not going to list every single fault and failure in this deeply depressing saga, mostly because every single decision, or failure to make a decision, by both Kent and Dover was wrong and unlawful right up to the point of Shelter’s threatened JRs in late September 2009. What is more, it appears clear that the unlawful decisions or unlawful failure to make decisions were sometimes based on policy, not just arising from incompetence. That is unlawful policy and unlawful failures to follow policy (the framework agreement) that resulted in a highly vulnerable 16 year old living in a tent, sometimes in heavy snow, for 9 months.
They did not do a single thing right, not one single thing, between January and late September 2009.
It can hardly be a surprise that the Ombudsman was deeply critical. Kent had failed to fulfil its duties under the Children Act 1989 and Dover had failed to fulfil its duties under Housing Act 1996. The failures were inexcusbale. They came after important court judgments had clarified the roles of housing authorities and children’s services authorities in regard to homeless children of 16 and 17. Dover’s obdurate demands for a guarantee also came in for severe criticism.
The Ombudsman found maladminstration causing injustice. To remedy the injustice:
- The Councils must apologise to J in writing
- Pay £3800 as the value of the housing he should have had for 38 weeks
- Pay £3800 as the equivalent of £100 for each week he was homeless for distress and inconvenience
- Pay £2500 to mark their regret for their failures
- 50% per council.
- The Councils should carry out audits of the relevant services to ensure the joint protocol on homeless children was understood an applied.
- J should be treated by Kent as entitled to advice and assistance up to 21 as if he had been a relevant child as he should have been treated.
- Kent must review the handling of incoming phone calls and correspondence to Children’s Services.
- Neither Council had responded to the Ombudsman’s Draft findings in the 3 month time limit, so the findings stood.
Frankly, I think both Councils got off lightly. They could well have been facing very substantial judicial review costs as well. They will, however, remain on the naughty step in perpetuity.