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September 11, 2016

If we want teenagers to stop committing crime why do we make them live alone in bed and breakfast accommodation?

A few months ago an inspection report hit the headlines because it revealed that women leaving Bronzefield prison were being given tents on release since they had no other accommodation.

This week another inspection report exposed how homeless children who offend are also being housed in crazy places. Every bit of evidence says that people need a stable, safe home if they are ever going to desist from crime.  This is especially true of children. But the report cites numerous examples of teenagers on community sentences or released from prison living in hostels, bed and breakfast accommodation or totally on their own.  None of these are suitable for an ordinary under 18 year old, even less so for the kind of vulnerable teenagers who end up in the criminal justice system.  Teenagers need some kind of parenting and supervision to have a hope of rebuilding their lives.  But a child in a bed and breakfast is on their own surrounded by strangers, expected to manage shopping, cooking, laundry etc. Not surprisingly, the teenagers become very lonely and/or end up befriending unsuitable people.  The report cites two hair-raising examples:

Karen had been made the subject of a full care order in November 2012 after years of neglect and domestic violence within her home. Aged 16 years old, she had had to leave a children’s residential home and was placed at a mixed hostel (above) where she met a 22 year old man who became her partner. It later transpired that he had a criminal record and a history of violence towards partners which was not known to either the YOT or children’s social care services. When he was evicted due to his behaviour, Karen left with him. For a substantial period the pair lived in a tent. At the time of the inspection Karen, now 17 years old, had been placed by children’s social care services in bed and breakfast accommodation with him.  Her aunt had reported seeing bruising to her face and there had been police call outs for domestic violence.

Scott was described by his YOT case manager as an “emotionally naive and fragile young man”. He was removed from his parents at a young age as a result of domestic violence and placed with his aunt. When this broke down at 17 years old, he lived in a garden shed for 3 months. When he came to the attention of the YOT, children’s social care services placed him into emergency accommodation where he did not cope well. He was a vulnerable young man open to bullying and assaults by others. He was subsequently placed in a hostel. It became apparent that he was giving his food away to a local family and begging.

The report found that some teenagers were housed in places that had never been inspected, and that no-one in the council had even seen.  Clearly teenagers are being let down.  But why and how?

This is an abject lesson in how un-joined up government is, despite the rhetoric.  And how things that are not measured or scrutinised become “invisible” problems.  The children are being supervised on criminal justice orders by youth offending teams.  YOT workers know if a child is homeless, but it’s not their responsibility to house them, nor do they have any budget to do so.  All they can do is exert gentle pressure on their colleagues in housing or social services.  There is government guidance to say that children should not be housed in bed and breakfast accommodation or in hostels with adults, unless there is an emergency.  But no-one is monitoring whether the guidance is being followed, nor is proper data even being collected.  For those who control housing, this group is not a priority. Meanwhile YOT workers tear their hair out because they have scant chance of supporting a child who is living surrounded by potentially dangerous adults.

The moral of the story is that guidance and exhortations to join up government are of little use if staff are not motivated.  And that rehabilitation can only work if all agencies have the same priorities. When resources in local authorities are so tight, especially in housing, its really difficult to change behaviour. In the end though, money talks, which is why I think the devolution of budgets is the best solution.  If budgets for child custody or, preferably, for the whole of the youth justice budget (the costs of cases and sanctions for all children convicted in court) were devolved to local authorities, they would be incentivised, and have the resources, to do everything possible to support rehabilitation, including providing the right housing.