Doncaster council needs to act upon lessons from Ombudsman report on supporting young homeless people

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has issued a second critical report within two years about the way Doncaster council supports young homeless people, highlighting the importance of learning lessons from complaints.

The council’s actions left a vulnerable teenager without proper support after she was made homeless by her parents. This is despite Doncaster council assuring the LGO it had improved its procedures following an investigation into a similar complaint in 2014.

In that investigation a homeless teenager, who had been threatened by her family, was told she was not the authority’s responsibility and to return home. In response to the LGO’s investigation the council changed its protocol on 16 and 17 year olds in housing need.

However, just a few months after the new policy had been agreed, the council again failed to act properly when a teenager called on it for support.

In the latest case a 16-year-old had been living with her mother when she was thrown out of her house in December 2014.

Social services had been involved with the family for a number of years, because of her parents’ use of alcohol and drugs, allegations of domestic violence and the girl’s own consequent mental health problems.

The girl explained that at the beginning of December 2014 her mother returned home drunk and she was told to leave home in the middle of the night. She stayed with a friend and made a homelessness application to the council. The council placed her in interim accommodation, where she relied on food parcels and emergency money for food and clothing.

Later that month a social work manager decided that the girl was not homeless as she could return to live with her father – despite his drink and drug problems and history of emotional abuse – and that there was no need to complete a child in need assessment.

In early January, the girl left the interim accommodation for a young people’s hostel. The council did not send her a decision on her homelessness application. Five days later she attended a meeting and was told social services could complete an assessment if she wanted to be placed in foster care, which she refused. The council should have explained the whole variety of support options that might have been available as well as foster care, had she been assessed.

The social worker felt the teenager was refusing to be assessed, had a parent who was willing to look after her and believed she just wanted to choose her own accommodation.

By March 2015 social care records show the girl was living in a hostel with no contact with either parent. The girl has received no support from social services since this time.

In April, police told social services that her boyfriend had been warned about harassing her. She had been prescribed anti-depressants by her doctor. Despite this, she was attending school and still hopes to go to university.

An advocate complained to the LGO on the teenager’s behalf and an investigation found the council’s children’s services team failed to follow national guidance and its own policy on dealing with homeless young people and so did not assess her properly or properly consider whether it should provide her with support and somewhere to live. This meant she had to find her own accommodation and received very limited support. Since becoming homeless her mental health has deteriorated.

The council did not take into account the earlier referrals made about the girl, including significant concerns expressed by the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) and her school before deciding it should not help her.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

“The suffering this young woman has gone through could have been prevented if the council had learnt the lessons from our report last year. It is not enough to simply change a policy, officers need to be aware of and implement those changes too.

“While I am pleased that Doncaster council has accepted my recommendations it is disappointing that more concrete improvements were not made after my previous investigation. I hope that the opportunity will now be taken to ensure that a situation like this cannot happen again.”

To remedy the complaint, the LGO has recommended that Doncaster council apologises to the girl and backdates its duty to support her to December 2014 and ensure she receives that support now and in the future. It should also pay her £2,000 to acknowledge the avoidable distress caused and limited support provided to her since December 2014.

To help ensure lessons are learnt, the LGO has also recommended that the council should provides training to all relevant staff on its responsibilities for assessing homeless 16 and 17 year-olds and explain how it will ensure in future homeless 16 and 17 year-olds are properly assessed, given changes to practice agreed as a result of the LGO’s earlier investigation and report.

In October 2014 the Secretary of State set up Doncaster Children’s Services Trust to deliver safeguarding and social care services to children and young people on behalf of Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council. Complaints about children’s social care services in Doncaster remain within the jurisdiction of the Local Government Ombudsman.

Doncaster Children's Services Trust has accepted the recommendations.

Article date: 15 December 2015