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Local authorities criticised for ‘inexcusable failures’ over homeless teenager

16 year old suffered physical and mental problems after failure to be assessed as ‘child in need’

The Local Government Ombudsman, Anne Seex, has found that failures by Kent and Dover Council meant that a homeless 16-year-old had to spend nine months living in a tent, suffered physical and mental ill-health, and had to sell or give away his belongings.

In her report Ms Seex says that Kent failed to assess the teenager as a 'child in need' and accommodate him, thus denying him his right to advice and assistance. Dover failed to accept him as homeless and provide suitable temporary accommodation, or contact Kent children's services about him.

She says:

"These failures are inexcusable. They happened after important court rulings had clarified the roles and responsibilities that housing authorities and children's services authorities have to homeless children of 16 and 17.

"J was remarkably determined and resilient in the face of crushingly difficult circumstances and was well supported by the youth centre. The failures of the two Councils could have easily tipped him into a spiral of drug use and crime."

Among the Ombudsman's recommendations to remedy the injustice to J, she asks the two Councils to apologise to J and pay him £10,100 compensation (each to pay half).

J became homeless when he was 16. As a younger teenager he had been taken into care by Kent County Council and placed with foster parents. He was returned to his mother but she told him to leave when he objected to her relationship with an intravenous drug user.

He applied for housing to Dover Council but was turned away. A youth centre manager told Kent children's services about J. Those contacts were not recorded and for six months Kent children's services did nothing.

J was determined to stay 'clean' of drugs and out of trouble. Although Dover Council would not accept him as homeless it offered him bed and breakfast, registered him for housing and offered him a one-bedroom flat. He refused these offers because he did not want to be in areas where he would be tempted into drugs or crime.

Under the combined pressure from a neighbourhood police officer, the Youth Offending Service, the YMCA and a local drug and alcohol service, Dover offered him another flat from the housing register and J accepted. Dover demanded an adult guarantor for the tenancy. For six weeks it refused to accept a £1,000 guarantee from Kent children's services. The Ombudsman is particularly critical of Dover's demands about a guarantee, saying they were "obdurate".

Throughout this time J was still a child. He spent nine months sleeping in a tent, sometimes in snow, or on friends' sofas. His tent was vandalised and his physical and mental health suffered – his feet were frequently wet, he had back pain and lost a lot of weight, and developed a chest infection.

The Ombudsman found maladministration because:

To remedy the injustice, the Ombudsman recommends that the Councils should apologise in writing to J and pay him:

The total amount is £10,100 and the Ombudsman says that the councils should each pay half. They should also undertake audits to satisfy themselves that their staff know about and apply its joint protocol for homeless young people aged 16-21. The results of those audits should be reported to the Executives or the appropriate Scrutiny Committee.

Kent County Council's failure to assess J as a 'child in need' meant it did not provide him with other services and support that he needed. The voluntary sector youth centre stepped in and gave J personal support above and beyond its usual level. Ms Seex says that the Council should recognise this by thanking the centre and its manager in writing.

Kent County Council's failure to accommodate J under Section 20 of the Children Act meant that he did not become entitled to advice and assistance up to the age of 21. To remedy this injustice the Ombudsman considers that the Council should agree to treat J as if he was entitled to that support. It should nominate one of the 'independent persons' (who protect the interests of children in care) to monitor what advice and assistance J wants and needs and ensure it is provided to him.

Kent County Council has been told that it should review its arrangements for receiving and recording telephone calls to its children's services to ensure that important messages are not overlooked. The outcome of that review should be reported to the appropriate Scrutiny Committee.

Dover District Council has already implemented procedural improvements to address some of the areas of concern highlighted by this investigation. It has also agreed to write a letter of apology and pay the proposed compensation.

Kent County Council has yet to respond to the draft findings.

The Ombudsman is satisfied that both Councils have had sufficient opportunity to respond to the draft findings and now awaits confirmation that they will provide the remedy she recommends.