Cornwall Council leaves homeless teenager in a tent

Cornwall Council made a host of significant failings when it accommodated a vulnerable 17 year-old boy in a tent and caravan over a summer, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigation has found.

The boy spent five weeks in a tent, four weeks in a static caravan and several nights sleeping rough after approaching the council for help. Following his ordeal he was left emaciated and was detained in a psychiatric hospital for 11 months.

The Ombudsman’s report found on numerous occasions the council, provided accommodation that was inappropriate, it didn’t properly assess the boy’s ability to make decisions about his own safety, and didn’t do enough to protect him from sexual exploitation or ill health.

Throughout the Ombudsman’s report, evidence suggests the council tried to place responsibility for the situation on the boy, because of his actions, rather than provide the right support to a vulnerable child who was suffering from drug addiction and mental ill health.

The investigation also found the council didn’t properly plan for having enough accommodation for young homeless people, and didn’t coordinate well with other local services such as mental health.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said:

“There is a long list of failures in this case which had dreadful consequences for the boy. But the starkest, and most worrying, element is the attitude shown towards his situation. I would have expected an unequivocal response that it was simply wrong to accommodate the boy in this manner.

“It is true the boy in this case showed difficult behaviours. However, this is exactly why the Children Act exists to support the most vulnerable in our society and councils should not apportion blame when help is needed.

“I now hope Cornwall Council will take this investigation fully on board, and use it to learn where it can improve things so it doesn’t let other young people and their families down in such a way again.”

The events in this case took place over the summer of 2016. The boy had a history of cannabis use and child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) had previously noted concerns about his mental health.

After having been arrested for drug dealing, he was not allowed to return to live with his father so the council housed him in supported accommodation in another town. He was evicted from this placement for breaching conditions of his stay and became homeless.

The boy refused an offer from the council of supported accommodation 30 miles away from the area he knew. A social worker then bought the boy a tent and helped him pitch it. Council records show the boy’s mother, who lived a long way from Cornwall, challenged the decision to place her son in a tent. The council said no options were available because the boy did not want to come into care. The council asked the mother whether she could accommodate her son, but she could not do so because of the risk to the other children she fostered.

Over the coming weeks the boy asked the council for accommodation on a number of occasions. It also received two calls about his welfare, once after he had been found in an abandoned building having set fire to a mattress to keep warm. Case records show the council said if he could show he wanted to make some changes, his options would increase. At one point the council bought the boy a new tent after the first one started leaking.

Around five weeks after first being given a tent, the council decided the boy was at such risk that it moved him to a static caravan on a different site. The following week he reported being sexually assaulted by a man in a car. There is no evidence the council considered whether to take any action, under section 47 of the Children Act, to safeguard him following this report.

Around a month later, the council moved the boy to bed and breakfast accommodation. Government guidance says bed and breakfast accommodation is never suitable for children. Shortly after he was moved to appropriate supported accommodation. Two weeks later he was detained under the Mental Health Act, which lasted for 11 months.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services.

In this case the council should pay the, now young man, £2,500 for the effects of its actions on his mental health, lost opportunities and placing him at risk. It should pay the boy’s mother £1,500 for the severe distress and frustration it caused.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve a council’s processes for the wider public.

In this case the council should review its policies to ensure its procedures for accommodating 16 and 17 year-olds comply with statutory guidance, and ensures it properly considers whether the wishes of young people are rational if they refuse accommodation.

It should also draw up an action plan to ensure there is sufficient accommodation for homeless young people. It should train staff working with homeless young people on the right accommodation to provide, and how to properly record instances of safeguarding referrals.

Article date: 30 October 2018

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