Thousands of homeless teenagers have been steered away from going into care and into cheaper hostel accommodation, a child advocacy charity has said.
Coram Voice says it believes thousands of vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds had not been looked after in accordance with appropriate child-protection laws.
One London teenager said that – with hindsight – she feels betrayed by the advice she received.
Meanwhile, one London council said decisions were based on need, not cost.
Andrew Dickie, head of services at Coram Voice, a charity that runs a homeless outreach service for 16 to 17-year-olds offering support and advice, said it was likely that thousands of teenagers had been channelled towards options that were not in their best interests.
“Again and again we find young people tell us that they’ve not been given the full picture about what support they’re entitled to, [that they’ve been] tricked or channelled into support which is not what they need.
“We’ve got 18 or 19-year-olds who come to us after extended periods of homelessness as adults because of the instability, because they weren’t taken into care. And that could have been completely avoidable.
“Each time that happens to a child that’s outrageous and it needs to stop.”
Most 16 or 17-year-old children who are accepted as homeless by a local authority should be taken into care under section 20 of the Children Act.
It means they become “looked-after children” with a personal adviser who can help with accommodation arrangements, educational needs, training and career guidance.
All of this is overseen by a social worker and support can continue up to the age of 25.
This support is not available to those placed in hostels, meaning that councils save money.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by BBC London, Lambeth Council said so far this year it had accommodated 20 16-17-year-olds under section 20, while 52 were not.
In Lewisham, so far in 2023, 17 were not accommodated under section 20, while six children were.
In Hammersmith and Fulham Council, only five children were accommodated under section 20, while 13 were not.
Other London councils came back with low figures while others reported incomplete data.
‘It took a toll’
Charlotte, who wishes to remain anonymous, became homeless at 16.
“My mum didn’t really agree with my sexuality,” she said. “My head was always exploding. Then me and my mum’s relationship got so toxic it just didn’t feel normal.”
When social workers visited her and explained how she could be accommodated, she says that with hindsight it feels like a “trick” and that her options were described as either go into care and live with a foster family or be independent, have some money, and live in a hostel.
Reflecting back on that conversation Charlotte, now 19, said: “For me it was hard because I’m not even accepted by my own family, and for a young person who was quite independent I thought living in a hostel, that was the jackpot.
“Little did I know, that was me kind of setting myself up,” she added.
“I feel angry, I feel betrayed. I definitely felt that I had to grow up rapidly.
“Every week my keyworker at the hostel changed. I didn’t have any guidance or support, I didn’t know what I was doing. It definitely took a toll on me.”
This year, Charlotte took Lambeth Council to court. The case ended with a favourable settlement for her and with the council accepting that she should have been taken into care under section 20.
Dan Rosenberg, a solicitor at law firm Simpson Millar which took Charlotte’s case to court, said he had dealt with dozens of cases across London in which social workers were guiding homeless 16 to 17-year-olds away from care because of the cost.
“My view is: of course it’s done knowingly,” he said.
“All the adults know perfectly well what is in the best interests of the child – which is section 20. [The motivation for their actions is] purely financial. There’s a cost to providing support.”
But in a statement, Lewisham Council said decisions were “always based on need, not cost”.
“When we need to arrange accommodation for a young person, our social workers will always explore their views, ensure they understand their options and are involved with decisions that affect them,” it added.
The statement added: “Where there are significant safeguarding concerns or additional vulnerabilities, we will usually arrange for them to become looked-after under Section 20 and placed, for example, in foster care or supported lodgings.”
A Lambeth Council spokesperson also told the BBC that it was “constantly reviewing how 16 and 17-year-olds properly understand the different options available to them”.
“We provide a comprehensive package of support to prevent family breakdown or homelessness and help young people to stay within their families, where it is appropriate to do so.”
It added that it has seen “a significant increase in our care leaver population, and a lot of this is down to young people who have been accommodated under Section 20.”
A Hammersmith and Fulham Council spokesperson added it was “confident that our response to young people at risk is both sensitive and effective.”
It added that it was a “compassionate council” and “cost is not a factor.”
The Children’s Commissioner, Rachel De Souza, said in a statement she would “shortly be publishing my own research into homelessness amongst 16-and-17-year-olds in England, which will include recommendations about how we can ensure children who present as homeless get the support they need and deserve.”
Charlotte is getting her life back on track, although she says the resolution of her court case has been bittersweet.
“I definitely feel like there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “But I know there’s kids still dealing with the same thing. So it almost feels like a burden because it feels like: ‘Is it going to end?'”