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On your own now: the risks of unsuitable accommodation for older teenagers

16 and 17 year olds who cannot live at home with their families are very vulnerable and need a great deal of support and care if they are going to be able to enter adult life positively. Living away from family at the age of 16 would be a challenging experience for any young person and it is so for many young people in the care of their local authority because of their earlier experiences of abuse, neglect and family conflict which often make them less well-equipped to survive on their own.

The rules state that these children should become looked after children and are entitled to the full support of local authority children’s services but this report demonstrates how this is not always the case in practice. Last year local authorities were responsible for at least 8,400 young people aged 16 or 17 who could no longer live at home. This number includes existing looked after children of that age, but also includes 16 and 17 year olds entering the care system, other 16 and 17 year olds who stopped being looked after to become care leavers and many young people accommodated by their local authority because they found themselves at risk of homelessness.

These young people, all vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds, are treated very differently. They each have a different set of entitlements and have very different experiences. Whilst some receive the full set of entitlements due to care leavers and looked after children others do not. Our report earlier this year, Getting the house in order, exposed the fact that two-thirds of homeless 16 and 17 year olds who are offered accommodation are not given looked after status thus denying them the support they need to navigate through their late adolescent years.

Alongside varying support there are also varying types of accommodation. Whilst some of these young people will be in stable foster placements many more find themselves living in provision designed to prepare them for adult life with varying degrees of support. Living outside the family and with little supervision, this accommodation can expose them to further risks like being exploited for sexual or criminal purposes, abusing drugs and alcohol, deteriorating mental health, getting in to financial trouble and more.

This accommodation is not consistently inspected by Ofsted and there are only minimal standards outlining how providers and local authorities should meet the needs of 16 and 17 year old children living in these arrangements. Whilst local authorities can choose to put in place robust quality frameworks through their commissioning arrangements our research shows that practice across England varies considerably, with some young people telling us they are experiencing good provision and others describing their struggle to cope – with little support and in surroundings that are not conducive to their development as confident and independent adults.

If they are to overcome the risks they encounter and thrive, 16 and 17 year olds need both quality support and quality accommodation. Their status and where they are placed should not be detrimental to their life chances. This report however finds that in many places the different components of the system are not working together and that many young people still receive care and accommodation that falls short. At the worst, 16 and 17 year olds can find themselves living in poverty, surrounded by other chaotic young adults, in environments where they can be exposed to violence and drugs. Faced with these challenges they are prone to crises and their problems can escalate.

This does not have to be the case and this report pays particularly close attention to the ways in which accommodation providers, local authorities and other agencies are working together to ensure that the young people in their care are properly safeguarded and supported.The report is based on an analysis of the sufficiency strategies of 102 local authorities, a survey with 118 providers of accommodation in 83 local authorities in England and focus groups with 11 young people who have experience of living in accommodation designed to prepare them for independence at the age of 16 or 17. Throughout the report we have used case studies from The Children’s Society’s direct work with young people who needed support with their housing needs when they were aged 16 or 17.

The report makes the case for change in how vulnerable 16 and 17 year olds who cannot live at home with their families are supported and cared for. It argues that the complicated variety of different provisions for looking after these young people combined with support, care and living arrangements that are not subject to enough scrutiny by the state have resulted in a situation which is damaging young people lives in ways that stay with them well into adult life. It is a call for national and local government, accommodation providers and a range of other agencies and organisations to come together to ensure we provide high quality and guaranteed support so that these 16 and 17 year olds can thrive.