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Clear advice and guidance key to supporting young people leaving care, says Ombudsman

Council makes mistakes in its handling teenager’s immigration status

Councils must ensure they give the best advice and guidance to care leavers, particularly where their transition to adulthood is complicated by their immigration status or lack of family ties, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.

The message comes after the LGO found a number of errors by Royal Borough of Greenwich when handling the immigration status of a Nigerian teenager it was looking after. The council's failings meant the girl, who is now an adult, has lost a place at university as she cannot access Higher Education while her status remains uncertain and is also unable to work.

The girl was brought to the country in 2006 when she was 10 to live with her mother, her stepfather and his 'other' wife. A year later the mother's visa ran out and in 2010 she returned to Africa, leaving the girl with her stepfather and his wife. The girl became the council's responsibility as a 'looked after child' later in 2010 and was placed with foster carers after her stepfather refused to take her back when she ran away from home.

The council spent a number of months attempting to contact the girl's mother in Nigeria to clarify her immigration status and start the process of applying for leave to remain. In September 2011 the council noted it should consider getting a solicitor for the girl. By July 2012 the council agreed to support her to pursue an application for leave to remain in her own right.

The council struggled to find a solicitor to take on Legal Aid cases, and it mistakenly believed there was no Legal Aid available for cases such as the girl's. The council gave the girl's foster carer a list of solicitors and agreed to pay their fees for advice. At the end of January 2013 the girl received the legal advice arranged by the council.

As she had by then been living in the country for more than seven years, the solicitor offered to put together her Home Office application at a cost of £1,800. The council had confused the rules on leave to remain with those for young people seeking asylum and refused to pay the solicitor's fees as it mistakenly believed she would have to reapply again when she turned 18.

However, the council did not tell the girl it would not help her until March 2013, just a few weeks before she turned 18 and two weeks before the removal of Legal Aid for cases such as hers.

The girl independently asked another solicitor to help who was able to apply for Legal Aid on her behalf and who intended to apply to the Home Office for the girl. However, the girl panicked as she was approaching 18 and sent in her application without checking it with the solicitor. The application was returned as incomplete. By the time she resubmitted the full application she had passed her 18th birthday.

This had significant consequences. As a child, she would have had to be resident in the UK for only seven years to qualify, however, as an adult she needed to have spent half her life living in the country, and prove there were significant obstacles preventing her from returning to Nigeria.

The Home Office refused her application for leave to remain but it has recently agreed she can make an appeal. The girl believes if it was not for the council's errors her application for leave to remain would have been made as a child and might have had more chance of success.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"When acting as corporate parents, councils need to provide the support and advice necessary to help the transition out of care and into adulthood. This is particularly crucial for children who do not have the extended family support and community ties that other children might rely upon.

"In this case, because of a number of mistakes and misunderstandings, this girl was left in a vulnerable position at a critical age which affected her life chances.

"I am pleased Greenwich council has agreed to my recommendations, and would urge other councils to examine their procedures to ensure this situation cannot happen in their area."

The LGO said that to remedy the injustice caused, the council should apologise to the girl and provide specialist advice and guidance to social work staff on the different requirements of immigration rules as they apply to children seeking asylum and those seeking leave to remain, and on the council's duties in this area.

It should devise an action plan to ensure it gives full and proper consideration to its duties to all looked after children who may be in need of legal advice and ensure officers record both the questions raised and any advice given.

The council should also pay the girl £5,000 to acknowledge the distress caused by its failure to provide consistent support and advice to her as a 'looked after' child.

The council has accepted the recommendations.

5/2/16