The most recent recent statutory guidance on carrying out assessments and providing assistance under the Children Act 1989 is Working Together To Safeguard Children which came into effect on 15 April 2013 and was revised in March 2015. It replaces the earlier guidance, in particular the Framework for the Assessment of Children in Need and their Families (2000) as the primary source of statutory guidance for how Children's Services Departments should deal with homeless families which children who the Housing Department were refusing to assist.
Those of us who assist homeless families in seeking support under the Children Act 1989 are often met with a hostile response from social workers and their lawyers. This is based on what appears to be an assumption that it is not the role of social workers to provide housing for people and that the clients and their solicitors are trying it on or abusing a system meant for protection of children from abuse by using it to claim housing which they are not entitled to by the “proper” or normal routes through the Housing Department. This guidance is reassuring for us in that it does make a number of express references to the provision of housing.
In addition to the protection of children from mistreatment this guidance states that that its overall purpose (as set out at page 7) includes preventing impairment of health and development and taking action to enable children to have the best outcomes.
For detailed consideration of Statutory Guidance see When Is Guidance Statutory And Does It Matter? from the Not So Big Society Blog
Changes Introduced By The 2013 Statutory Guidance
The new guidance is not hugely different from the old Framework guidance. Emphasis is now placed on the need for early intervention by social services and partner organisations such as schools and hospitals.
The most significant change in the new guidance is that the requirement for an initial assessment and (then if appropriate a more detailed) core assessment report to be produced later been dropped
Children’s Services now have to acknowledge the referral within 1 working day (see Page 23 Paragraph 55) They then have up to 45 workings days to produce a full assessment report. The initial acknowledgement requirement does go much further than simply confirming that a referral has been received. The acknowledgment should include a preliminary indication of whether the child is in need and proposals for interim support should be given.
The two key principles are:
1. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. (Page 8)
As referred to below this applies to all council staff including Housing Department staff. Compliance with this guidance should therefore lead to Housing Department staff stopping the practice of discharging their duty to make a referral of an intentionally homeless family with children to the Children’s Services Department under Section 213A of the Housing Act 1996 by simply notifying families of the option of approaching the Children’s Services Department if they wish to. They should now be actively working with the family to make a referral by obtaining their consent and working with staff in the Children’s Services Department to ensure support is provided as soon as possible to achieve a positive outcome for the children of the family
2. There should be child centred approach based on the needs and views of children (Page 9).
This not directly relevant to the issue of obtaining accommodation as compared to where there are concerns that a child is being mistreated. However it may be that the failure of Children’s Services Department staff to meet with the children following a referral in a homelessness situation can be treated as being indicative of not following the guidance or providing an adequate service. This key principle can also be used to challenge assessments of the children of intentionally homeless families which focus on criticising the actions of the parents rather than the needs of the child.
The guidance encourages the provision of early help using the Common Assessment Framework (CAF) as an alternative to a formal assessment under Children Act 1989. Such help can be provided by other agencies such as schools. The idea is that the provision of Early Help might help identify problems before they become servere and prevent needs escalating to the point where intervention would be needed via a full statutory assessment under the Children Act 1989.
It is made clear at paragraph 11 on page 13 that if at any time is considered that a child may be in need as defined in the Children Act 1989 a refer all should be made immediately to the local Children’s Services Department. The Early Help assessment should be seen as a preliminary step to be taken when professionals consider that “children may benefit from early help services” (see paragraph 7 on page 12) rather than services following a full Children Act assessment. The idea seems to be to encourage other agencies not to ignore signs that children may be in need and to make referrals to Children’s Services Departments if they cannot resolve the problems themselves with early help.
I have always found that anything less than a formal assessment under Children Act 1989 tends to result in families only receiving general advice from duty social workers or reception staff to the effect that there is no support available. It usually takes the formality of the full assessment process to focus the minds of staff in Children’s Services Departments on their obligation to provide support. I do not believe therefore that housing lawyers will have much of a role to play in Early Help. With the sort of cases were are dealing with it will be necessary to make a request for a full assessment as soon as possible.
The guidance reminds readers that Section 10 of the Children Act 2004 requires social services authorities to make arrangements to promote co-operation between the authority and its relevant partners. These include a number of bodies set out in Table A In Appendix B. For our purposes this can be treated as including the Housing Department staff. Solicitors or other advisers assisting families cannot however be treated as relevant partners for this purpose.
The guidance refers at page 12 paragraph 8 to the need for an inter-agency assessment where a child and family would benefit from co-ordinated support from more than one agency such as housing there should be an inter-agency assessment.
Until now different departments councils have been very bad at working together to help families with housing problems. After deciding that no duties are owed to a family under Part 7 of the Housing Act 1996 Housing Department staff tend to close their files and wash their hands of the families. Staff in the Children’s Services Department are often not trained to deal with housing issues and are often reluctant to assist because they do not believe that social workers should be sorting out housing problems. In future we might be able to overcome this problem by asking staff in Children’s Services Departments to treat the assessment process as being “inter agency” and including the Housing Department from the staff. This can be tied in following the assessment with the requirement of the guidance (at page 26) to the need for assistance to be provided from other parts of an authority including the Housing Department.
The guidance provides (at Page 14 Paragraph 18) that local authorities should produce Threshold Documents which cover the the process for early help assessments and the criteria, including the level of need when a case should be referred to the local authority for assessment and statutory services under the the Children Act 1989.
Any member of the public can make a referral to social services. Contact details for who to make a referral to should be signposted (page 14 paragraph 19). Feedback should be given to the persons making the referral on the decisions taken. Where appropriate this feedback should include the reasons why a case may not meet the statutory threshold to be considered the the council for assessment (page 14 paragraph 21)
The guidance sets out a summary of what constitutes “in need” in this context at page 17. In the context of homelessness it is reasonable to treat the threat of street homelessness as being such as to mean that the child is unlikely to achieve a satisfactory level of health and well being.
References is also made at page 17 to accommodating children under Section 20 of the Act. This is referred to as being appropriate where there is no one who has parental responsibility for them or because they are alone or abandoned. No reference is made to accommodating a child on their own under Section 20 where there is no accommodation available for the family. This should be referred to when social workers advise families that there is nothing that they can for for them other than that to take their children into care or otherwise house them on their own without their parents or family.
Reference is also made to Section 47 of the Act which places a duty on councils to make enquiries if they have reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer, significant. This section is more applicable to situations where a child is being mistreated. As such is it unlikely to arise in cases which only concern the need for housing and financial support.
The purpose of the assessment is summarised at page 18 as being:-
· to gather important information about a child and family
· to analyse their needs and/or the nature and level of any risk and harm being suffered by the child
· to decided whether the child is a child in need (section 17 and/or is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm (section 47); and
· to provide support and address those needs to improve the child’s outcomes to make them safe
The guidance sets out (at paragraph 32 on page 19) what are considered to be the parameters of a good assessment. These are only set out in vague terms and will often be observed in the breach. The items relevant to housing situations include the assertions that high quality assessments :-
· are focused on action and outcomes for children.
· are holistic in approach, addressing the child’s needs within their family…
· lead to action, including the provision and review of services
· are open open to challenge.
The framework diagram included at page 20 of includes housing and income as part of the Family and Environmental Factors to be considered. This can be referred to when social workers suggest that children act assessments or Children’s Services Departments are only concerned with parenting skills and do not cover housing or finances.
At paragraph 38 on page 21 it is stated that social workers should wherever possible meet with the child. Strictly speaking this is not really necessary where we are only asking for housing or financial support. However, the guidance and ethos behind it does place emphasis on assessments being “child centred” so that meeting with the child is important. Failure to meet with the child can be used as an additional ground for complaint or challenge where council’s refuse assistance summarily or without a proper assessment.
At page 23 it is stated (at para 55) that there should be a decision about the type of response within one working day and acknowledge receipt of the referral to the referrer. It is also stated here (at para 57) that the maximum timeframe for the assessment to conclude is 45 working days. If this is exceeded the social worker should record the reasons for this. At para 58 it is stated that where needs are identified during the assessment social workers should not wait for the conclusion of the assessment before providing services for the child and their family
At page Page 24 the guidance confirms that the old Initial and Core assessments are no longer needed
At para 61 on Page 24 the guidance states that authorities should determine their local assessment process through a protocol. Paragraph 62 states that these should be published. Solicitor and adviser helping homeless families and young persons should try and get copies of these.
Details of how to respond to a referral are set out at page 26. It is confirmed here that a decision as to how to respond to the referral should be made within one day. Interestingly it is also stated here that this should include determining whether the child is in need and should be assessed under Section 17 of the Act. This seems to be the wrong way round in that it is this assessment which determines whether the child is in need rather than being carried out once a finding has been made. Perhaps this should be treated as referring to the social worker deciding that they have reason to believe that the child is in need and that an assessment should be carried out. It is also stated her that the child and family must be informed of decision which is to be made within one working day. This does give us a lot of leverage to be making complaints very early on where there is no movement.
Reference is made at page 29 to requests being made for need for assistance from other parts of the local authority such as housing. It is hard to think what other assistance housing can provide other than accommodation. It might therefore be useful for us to be asking the Children’s Services Department to ask the housing department for accommodation from their stocks used for homeless families.
At page 30 it is stated that assessments should be carried out in a timely manner. This means that the 45 working day time limit should not be treated as the absolute maximum time for completing the report rather than as the target date.
At page 30 it is stated the assessment should determine whether the child is in need and that if services as to be provided then a child in need plan should be developed setting out measurable outcomes. This provision might be of use in challenging assessments where the service are only referred to in vague terms.
At page 47 the Guidance states that Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 places a duty on councils when discharging housing duties to do so with regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. This is probably vague enough for housing departments to get away with doing nothing other than assuring anyone who asks that children’s welfare is always considered by the Housing Department.
An interesting requirement is that set out at Page 47 that all council departments should have a clear line of accountability for providing services for safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. Solicitors and advisers should be asking housing departments what their line of authority and arrangements for protecting the welfare of children are and asking them to explain decisions against this.
At page 53 there is a reference to housing and homelessness services being subject to Section 11 duties and becoming aware of conditions that could have an adverse impact on children. Interestingly it does not refer to them creating such conditions themselves such as by terminating the provision of accommodation
At page 102 the Guidance deals with Section 213A of the Housing Act 1996. It states children of families who are not being housed under Part 7 of the Act may be in need if no further assistance is given under that Act. It goes on to say that where the children are in need social services may ask the housing authority for reasonable advice and assistance for helping the family to obtain accommodation and the housing authority must give reasonable advice and assistance. We can therefore be asking Children’s Services Departments to consider such requests to housing as part of the assessment process following a referral under S213A.