Opinion: Semi-independent accommodation and the disregard for children’s mental health
The government’s new proposals on semi-independent accommodation legitimises its use for 16 and 17-year-olds in care. Instead, children will receive ‘support’, a watered down right.
In its consultation on the new proposals, the government refers to 16 and 17-year-olds as ‘young people’. I believe this establishes division between children who are under 16, and those aged 16 and 17. In law, the word child refers to anybody who is under the age of 18.
We know that children’s mental health, overall, has worsened throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis. In April last year, the government outlined its intention to create a 10-year mental health strategy which does appear to have moved forward since.
The mental health of children is of paramount importance. In this article below, I explore the potential impact of the semi-independent accommodation proposals on the mental health of children aged 16 and 17 who are in care.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and complex trauma
Mental health, domestic abuse, and neglect are examples of ACEs which underpin why a children may enter the children’s social care system. These factors can lead to complex trauma, negatively affecting health and well-being.
Any child who enters the care system has experienced separation from birth parents, which can give rise to feelings of abandonment. Research by the former Children’s Commissioner shows that children living in semi-independent accommodation are more likely to be sexually exploited, go missing from home, or be criminally exploited by gangs, than their peers.
Considering the complex needs that can arise from these distressing events, I find it absurd that the government thinks it is appropriate for children under 18 to live in places which can only offer ‘support’ instead of ‘care’.
No definition of ‘complex needs’
Within the new proposals, the government says it does not expect that supported accommodation would be appropriate for children with complex needs.
This statement is questionable for different reasons, which I explain below.
In the consultation, the government does not define ‘complex needs’ nor the way that placing authorities should determine this, leaving it open to their discretion.
This omission risks children with complex needs being moved into semi-independent provisions regardless of the government’s intention.
Within the proposals, it says that ‘where a young person has complex needs …we do not expect that supported accommodation would be appropriate’. The word ‘expect’ denotes a suggestion and does not require placing authorities to refuse to move children with complex needs into semi-independent provision.
Inadequate access to early intervention
The Health and Social Care Committee found that 1.5 million children under 18 will need new or additional mental health support after the pandemic (Eshalomi, 2022). Meanwhile, children’s charities found that government funding for children’s services was cut by 24% (Centre for Mental Health, 2022).
During the pandemic, delayed needs identification occurred due to reduced contact with professionals. This delay led to more complex referrals than usual (Ofsted, 2022).
The government’s proposals are rushed without considering this evidence, which shows a disregard for children’s complex needs. How will the government ensure that children in care have early access to mental health support?
Due to the current delays in mental health services for children, it is questionable whether a child’s mental health needs will even be assessed before they are moved to semi-independent accommodation. Almost one third of children living in semi-independent accommodation were moved there within a week of entering care (GOV, 2021).
Lack of placements
There are many young people with complex needs in semi-independent or unregistered accommodation because of the lack of secure placements across the country. Many children in the social-care system experience placement breakdowns, negatively affecting their mental and physical health (Homes, 2022).
As stated by the president of the Associate Directors for Children’s Services (ADCS), it is now becoming "increasingly common for councils to seek a deprivation of liberty order" because of a shortage of regulated places.
However, I am afraid that by legitimising semi-independent accommodation, more children will end up living in places that do not meet their needs and experience placement breakdowns - damaging their overall well-being.
Cliff edge at 16?
Currently, the care cliff sees young people losing out on support when they turn 18, now the new legislation opens the doors for a cliff edge at 16.
An online survey for children in care (aged 16 and over) and care leavers showed that they often felt rushed into leaving care and had to move with only a few weeks’ notice. Can the government guarantee that children in semi-independent accommodation will not face the same situation?
Or that with the shortage of regulated placements, a child turning 16 will not be encouraged into semi-independent accommodation?
Cost of living crisis
The ongoing cost of living crisis is making people choose between heating and food. One story tells of how a young mother aged 20 in supported accommodation is having to cut back on fruit due to the current crisis (Harle, 2022). If a 20-year-old is struggling to manage, how is the government expecting 16 and 17-year-olds to manage, especially during such an adverse time?
My closing thoughts
The new proposals discriminate against children based on their age and lower the threshold from ‘care’ to ‘support’, disregarding the complex needs of children.
Instead of pursuing those proposals, the government should focus on providing substantial funding to cover the aforementioned cut in children’s services, and the current demand for mental health needs.
All children in care are entitled to ‘care’; it is unacceptable and unfair that the government wants to legitimise a two-tier system based on age.
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