Left living in filth and fear – the care system’s forgotten children

By Rebekah Pierre, Journalist and author, The Metro, 2 October 2021

‘I used to wake up to go to school, go downstairs and find homeless people sleeping in the kitchen,’ recalls Yusuf, a 27-year-old care leaver.

‘I literally had to step over them to get what I needed from the cupboards. There were rats and mice running around, too. Just picture one of the worst hostels in a third-world country and it was nothing short of that.

‘There weren’t any staff around. We were basically just left to fend for ourselves. It was absolute chaos.’

Yusuf – who is using a pseudonym to protect his identity – is describing his time in supported living accommodation, a five-bedroom house that he was placed into at just 16 by his local authority, having been moved into foster care shortly after arriving in the UK eight years earlier.

Such living arrangement fall under the umbrella of ‘unregulated placements’, a term used by both the government and social services, which refers to a form of accommodation for young people in care. It can include anything from a caravan to a bedsit and at present, there are around 6,000 children residing in them in England. Over half are from Black and minoritised communities.

Until recently, some children as young as 11 were being housed this way, however Department for Education legislation has since changed the rules so that those aged 15 and under are now banned from living in such settings. While it’s a welcome change, it still leaves vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds – still legally children – at risk.

Unlike foster homes, OFSTED inspections are not required in unregulated placements, which means there is no need to provide the children living in them with full-time care provision, such as close supervision around the clock.

Instead, they are only required to offer support, such as a weekly check-in with staff around education or employment opportunities, or limited practical assistance with issues like budgeting.

According to the government, these unregulated accommodations ‘should be used as a stepping stone to independence, and only ever when it’s in a child’s best interests’ – however, the narrative around preparing children for independence at this age has been heavily criticised by campaigners.

Despite former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield describing some as being ‘unfit for human habitation’, unregulated placements continue to receive government backing – and many feel that even with this latest legislation not enough is being done.

‘A lack of suitable placements and inadequate local authority budgets has led to an overreliance on this type of accommodation,’ explains Ali Gunn, policy and campaigns lead at the Together Trust, a charity that cares for people with disabilities and complex health needs. ‘We fear this new change in law is a green light to increase its use.’

Yusuf was the youngest of five residents in his accommodation and says, because of his age, he was an easy target from the start. 

‘It was probably one of the scariest times in my life,’ remembers the student. ‘There were constant parties, the most awful anti-social behaviour, and the housekeeping was absolutely atrocious.

‘We had this wooden floor and a gang would come in and spray it with oil or put rice down, so when you came out of your room you would slip.’ 

Within days of moving in, his room was broken into and all of his possessions stolen by gang members, who had overtaken the vacant room in the property.

But what they had taken was more than just ‘stuff’ to Yusuf. They were tangible and permanent belongings in a life otherwise fraught with uncertainty and change.  

In an environment where ‘the front door didn’t even lock’, intruders were frequent.

‘I had all of these people just coming in and out of my room. And I didn’t even know half of them,’ he recalls.

‘But the thing is, there was nothing I could do. If I told them to get out, they wouldn’t listen to me. I was just a kid, and there were more of them than me. So I just had to be compliant as possible so I wouldn’t get physically targeted.’ 

Yusuf’s fears were not unfounded. While living in the placement, he witnessed someone being bottled ‘just inches away’ from his face. On another occasion, one person was stabbed on the premises.

‘I just did what I had to so I could survive,’ he says. ‘I had to just let them come in whenever they wanted and pretend it didn’t bother me.’ 

Prior to moving in, Yusuf was provided with a ‘personal advisor’ who overtook the role of his social worker once he turned 16 – someone who should have been, in theory, able to ensure his care needs were met. However, he explains that meetings with this PA were few and far between, partly due to the fact that ‘their caseload was just ridiculous so they didn’t have time’. 

‘There was no one there to supervise us whatsoever in the house,’ Yusuf explains. 

Many campaigners worry that having children in unregulated placements being offered support rather than care means that there’s no set requirement to ensure they have a minimum amount of contact time per week with staff. In turn, young people are at risk of easily slipping through the net.

In fact, since April 2018, at least 14 children have died while living in supported accommodation. Three of the deaths were recorded as suicide and one was recorded as not yet known.

‘Children and young people in unregulated settings have often experienced untold loss – and in turn, the opportunity of a brighter future can also be taken from them,’ one former social worker tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Living without parental guidance can make accessing education or training – often their only route out of poverty – challenging at best,’ adds Ali Gunn. ‘Our research and countless testimonials from care leavers show that huge numbers of children are not in education or training (NEET) while they live in accommodation without adult care and supervision, despite education to 18 being a legal requirement.’

In some parts of the country, children in non-care settings who are NEET are in the majority – a figure that stands at 60% in the London Borough of Greenwich, rising to 90% in Knowsley Borough Council.

Although Yusuf was able to gain A levels while in his placement, he was no stranger to obstacles. A lack of financial support made it almost impossible to continue at times.

‘I got about £50 government allowance a week, and I had to spend part of that on my oyster card to get to and from sixth form. I had to pay service charges from that as well,’ he explains, adding that the support of school staff, in the absence of adult supervision in the placement, was a key factor in enabling him to succeed. 

While many children struggle to make ends, a staggering 73% of unregulated placements are now run by private companies. It’s a figure up from two-thirds from 2013, with many keenly aware of the profit to be made from such living accommodations, having competed for £120m in contracts last year.

Rowan Foster is a 20-year-old care leaver who has spent the last year living in supported accommodation for those with mental health needs.

She admits that had she been forced to make the transition at a younger age, she wouldn’t have been able to cope. The environment, she says, is barely manageable for an adult, let alone a child. 

‘If I lived here at 16, I would have killed myself.’ Rowan says starkly. ‘I went into care at 14, and back then, I was still healing and processing a lot of stuff. I would not have been in the right mental state. 

‘I am autistic, and I see the world logically. And there is no logic whatsoever in placing vulnerable 16–17 year olds by themselves.’

Rowan’s journey into supported living began when she was made homeless by her previous placement, when they could no longer meet her complex needs. 

‘I was just told “you’re going here”,’ she recalls. ‘There was no sense of agency or autonomy. I had no control over any of it. I had to start again in a place I didn’t know, which was terrifying.

‘It’s pretty intimidating. As a young woman I feel really vulnerable – most of the people here are a lot older, and the majority are men.’

Rowan describes how people often knock on her door trying to sell drugs. One resident, she says, died from an overdose.

However, as someone who is disabled and suffers from severe physical health conditions, including Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome for which she requires mobility aids, the risks she faces in the confines of own room pose just as much of a concern as what may happen in the vicinity of the placement. 

‘If I fall, no one is here to help me,’ she explains. ‘I have no way to communicate that I am in danger or in pain. It’s like it had never occured to anyone that a disabled person could live here.’

Just last year, Rowan’s physical health took a sharp decline, when, due to suffering from functional neurological disorder, she became paralysed in one leg and reliant on a wheelchair.

Although her FND is now in remission, she still relies on mobility aids for other conditions and says that at the time she had ‘no idea if [the paralysis] was going to be temporary or whether it was something I would have to live with forever’. 

 At one point, Rowan even had to beg staff to bring her a plate of food into her room – however, some refused, stating it was ‘outside staff policy’.

‘If I was in a family type environment, that never would have happened,’ she says. 

As this was not the first time Rowan had been forced to uproot her life, she was astutely aware of her rights, as well as the policies operating within the placement. This meant Rowan was able to advocate for the help she needed – something she recognises is a privilege that not all care-leavers share.

However, despite vocalising her needs to support staff based at the placement, her requests often went unheeded.

‘It was like you had to pick a problem and decide which was the worst,’ she explains. 

For Rowan, the future is uncertain. There is no guarantee when she may be able to move on.

‘It depends on the support I will get,’ she says, adding that she does hope to use her insight to become an NHS Expert by Experience, to improve the care given to those in a similar position. 

‘I remember thinking that it felt more like a prison than a home’

Rebekah Piere, author of this In Focus, previously lived in supported living before going on to work as a child protection social worker and a journalist. Here, she explains why she wanted to raise awareness of the issue:

‘Throughout my work in social care, it was not uncommon to encounter 16 year olds who possessed a wisdom far beyond their years. The unthinkable trauma many had experienced left them with a discerning, unsheltered view of the world.

‘Some had been forced to cross borders to flee war, while their soon-to-be classmates had only ever known travel as something to be relished. Others had been forced into caring roles at the age when most children have not yet mastered the art of tying their shoelaces.  

‘It was easy to forget their tender years at times – their remarkable insight into the failings of politicians, or their ability to manage a household seemed to belong to those who were decades older.

‘But glimpses of their vulnerability would soon appear. Their inability to perceive dangerous influences or to make decisions in their best interests located them firmly as children – children who, like all others, need protection, stability, and boundaries.

‘It is also not uncommon for 16–17 year olds in unregulated accommodation to be placed in mixed-gender settings. The hostel I lived in at this age, where I was placed after becoming homeless as a teenager, consisted of everyone from 16-year-old girls to 25-year-old men.

‘It is an arrangement that defies logic when I think about the child sexual exploitation risk.

‘My hostel was in a dilapidated area on the outskirts of the town centre, just yards away from the local sex-industry hotspot in a coastal town in the North of England.

‘On the day I moved in, the first thing anyone ever said to me was “If you want any green (cannabis), you know where I am” – a far cry from the nurturing welcome a child would receive in a loving foster home.

‘When I was shown into my room, I remember thinking that it felt more like a prison than a home; the metal bars on the window and the plastic, sheetless mattress spoke of an atmosphere designed for criminals, not children.

‘The difference is that those in prison would at least be fed and have access to electricity. Instead, I relied on a combination of free school meals, dreading the school holidays when these were unavailable and I had no choice but to skip meals, and the food I received at my job at a fast-food restaurant to survive.

‘When I could not afford to top up the electric meter, which was every other week, I used to write essays in the dark under the light of a candle – something that sounds almost Victorian. Certainly not something that should occur in 21st Century Britain to any child, let alone a child at the mercy of the care system.

‘For the remainder of my time at the placement, my overriding emotion was fear. I feared the other residents, many of whom were known to the police for serious crimes, but I also feared the long hours of solitude I faced without them in my bedsit. 

‘On the day I left for university, something I had to do completely alone, I walked out of the door with all I owned – or what was left of it – in bin bags.

#I never heard from staff ever again after this. There was no follow-up call, no after care, and when I asked if I could return over the summer while other students went back home, I was asked “Can’t you just stay with a friend?”.’

Although many children in the care system are forced into premature independence from the age of 16, non-care leavers are increasingly leaving home later in life, with the average UK currently 24.6 years old, which rises to 25.4 for men.

SafeLives is one of many organisations backing the #KeepCaringTo18 campaign, led by children’s rights charity Article 39. The small charity is bringing a legal challenge against the government through a judicial review in December, on the basis that the new legislation is discriminatory toward 16 to 17-year-olds.

‘The years between ages 16 and 18 are hugely formative. Simply providing accommodation for care experienced young people is not enough’ explains Liz Thompson, Director of External Relations at SafeLives. ‘Looked after children and young people may have additional needs and vulnerabilities due to their care experience, and from the situation that led to them entering the system.’  

Liz warns that the failure to provide support can also leave them vulnerable to domestic abuse and additional traumas. ‘These young people may go on to seek some form of care or acceptance wherever they can find it, and this human desire to be cared for can be abused,’ she says.