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A young girl sits on the floor holding her stomach and looking anxious
Without supportive adults, teenagers who have long lived in care often struggle in terms of mental health and wellbeing. tommaso altamura / Alamy Stock Photo

New laws in England will leave 16-year-olds living alone

The English system for accommodating children in care is broken. Demand outstrips supply and the uneven spread of children’s homes across the country, especially for children requiring specialist care, forces councils to increasingly rely on private, unregulated accommodation.

This situation is about to get worse. The law around how teenagers in care are housed has changed. On September 9, a piece of legislation, entitled the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021, came into force. It states that councils can now place children aged 16 and 17 into unregulated accommodation. Also called independent and semi-independent housing, this is non-care accomodation. The occupants, who are legally still children, only receive support, not care, as they would in foster care or a children’s home.

Typically, this sees young people aged 16-25 sharing communal facilities, while having their own room and bathroom. They are responsible for meeting their own health needs. They have full control of their finances. They are permitted to stay away overnight. And, crucially, there is no direct supervision provided by adults. Any support that is provided by adult workers aims to help them to live independently.

Approximately 6,000 over-16s –- boys and unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in particular – currently live this type of housing. And for some, this is the best choice. It fosters independence.

A graphic showing the number of children living independently or in unregulated accommodation between 2010 and 2019.
The number of children in England living independently or in unregulated accommodation has risen substantially since 2010. SSDA903 / Department for Education, Author provided

In many cases, however, it is unsuitable. A freedom of information request saw the department for education reveal that, between April 2018 and September 2020, ten children died while living in supported accommodation, of whom half took their own lives.

While the reasons for these deaths will be complex, the children’s rights organisation Article 39 asks if things may have been different had their housing situation provided them with more care.

This change in legislation is likely to have disastrous consequences. Here are four reasons why.

It denies teenagers their legal status as children

Both the UN convention on the rights of the child and the Children’s Act in England define a child as a person under the age of 18.

However, in some instances the way the government treats children appears to disregard their vulnerable status.

When the state becomes the parent, it has a duty to nurture and care so that children reach their full potential. For 16 and 17-year-olds, this new legislation seems counter intuitive. By contrast, children who live with their families leave home, on average, at around 23.

Research shows that for some, the move to non-care placements is too much, too soon. They feel ill-prepared to move out, both practically and emotionally. Care leavers have been found to want a safe space to practice their independence, without worrying that they might suffer consequences such as homelessness or failing in education if they make mistakes.

A girl smokes on a mattress in a squat
Teenagers in unregulated accomodation are responsible for their own finances and health needs. Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

It undermines their health and wellbeing

We know that children in care are more likely to have long-term health conditions, which last well into adulthood. Levels of mental health problems are high among these children too.

However, as children in care transition to independence – between the ages of 16 and 18 - they have been found to often not engage with the support services that could help them. There is a distinct possibility that by removing the care that is provided at 15, health appointments can be missed and conditions worsen or go untreated.

As my research and other studies have found, key workers in children’s homes go to great lengths to improve children’s wellbeing and bolster their ability to look after themselves. Many fear this good work will be undone if they are abruptly left to fend for themselves.

It makes them vulnerable to exploitation

At its worst, non-care accommodation places vulnerable children with other, often older individuals who have a range of complex problems. This has been found to put children at risk of involvement in exploitation and organised crime, including county lines drug dealing. It also puts them at greater risk of going missing for long periods.

Young people themselves cite the lack of a place to call home, instability, uncertainty and the sense of powerlessness leading – directly or indirectly – to their being exploited. They consider themselves different, and as having to manage without the same kind of care and attention that other children receive.

Illegal drug paraphernalia litters a car park in Brentwood, Essex
Vulnerable children are at risk of being exploited by older people and involvement in criminal activities. Ian Davidson / Alamy Stock Photo

It threatens their educational outcomes

By law, children must continue their education or training until the age of 18. However, this new care legislation effectively means the state considers that teenagers taking their GCSEs can fend for themselves.

Generally, children in care do less well in education. A recent report by the Together Trust, highlighted that over 3,000 children aged 16 and 17 were out of education, employment or training – thus categorised as NEETs – for all or some of their time in unregulated accommodation.

Conversely, research shows that the presence of supportive adults promotes positive educational outcomes, particularly for children who spend longer in care. This would then most apply to those 16- and 17-year-olds who are transitioning out of the care system.

These children deserve stepping stones to independence, not a cliff edge. The state – their de facto parents – should never leave them without the supervision and support that would ensure they are safeguarded against harm. Would our politicians think this good enough for their own children?

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