Homeless teen who had been raped didn’t get help from council for months
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A homeless girl who was recovering from being raped was not offered a home by a council for months - despite them having a legal duty to look after her.
And when she was finally offered support, Norfolk County Council tried to help her using the wrong law.
They then offered to house the girl, who was then 17, in a Norwich hostel where a woman had recently died and another had been taken to hospital with a suspected overdose.
It was only when her solicitor threatened the council with legal action in June that they agreed to properly accommodate her and she was taken into care.
The solicitor warned in a letter that the girl had suffered 'significant detriment' from the council's failure to provide her with accommodation.
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'She is suffering from severe stress and anxiety, and she has not been able to focus on her recovery from her rape and abuse,' she wrote.
Another lawyer later found the way the council acted in the case was 'unlawful'.
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The council has investigated and upheld all complaints the teenager made about the way they dealt with her.
After the teenager, who can not be identified for legal reasons, reported to police in 2016 she had been raped, officers referred the girl, who was then 15, to children's services at Norfolk County Council.
But an assessment by social workers only recommended advice should be given and the case was closed.
When she questioned why, the council said she did not meet the 'threshold' for child protection as at the time she was living at home and had support. But she was later kicked out of her house.
Police, meanwhile, ended their investigation into the rape because of evidential difficulties.
Now 18, she speaks eloquently and confidentially about how children's services failed to give her the support she was entitled to.
'In the last two years I've just been trying to get through what happened to me,' she said. 'I was self-harming. I was not receiving counselling and things got bad.'
For almost two years, after being kicked out of her family home, she slept on friends' sofas, at hotels and stayed with a boyfriend.
Then in November last year she asked the council for support and help with accommodation.
She was referred to a social worker but it took seven months for them to complete an assessment. All the while she was not given accommodation.
The assessment concluded that she was homeless, vulnerable and a potential victim of domestic violence, but no accommodation was offered to her.
Children's services were 'clearly aware' she was in unsuitable accommodation yet gave no help, her solicitor said.
The solicitor also accused the council of a failure to comply with the Children Act under which youngsters are taken into care.
They found the council tried to use the wrong bit of law to accommodate her.
Rather than taking her into care under section 20 of the Children Act, which would mean she would be entitled to support when she became an adult, the council offered her a choice and said they could giver her accommodation under a different law called Section 17.
That would mean she would get no support once she turned 18.
She told children's services that she wanted to be supported and accommodated under section 20, her lawyer said.
But at a meeting in May this year she was offered a choice instead between section 20 and section 17.
'They said with Section 20 I would have to meet with a social worker every week,' she said.
'They told me if I was under section 17 I would have my freedom still so I chose that.'
The teenager made three complaints to the council over how they handled her case - and all three were upheld.
A lawyer told the council investigation into her complaints that offering her a choice between Section 20 and Section 17 was 'unlawful'.
The council investigation found there was no evidence of 'misconduct or deliberate misuse of powers', but that 'the social workers' understanding of the legislation was limited'.
Children's Commissioner for England Anne Longfield also wrote to Sara Tough, director of Norfolk children's services, in April with her concerns about the teenager not getting accommodation and support 'in line with statutory guidance and her needs'.
Councils have a duty to accommodate young people who need help under the Children Act. That could include taking them into care and giving them accommodation or supporting their families.
But in this case, by not providing accommodation to a girl who was homeless and vulnerable the council was breaching Section 20 of the Act.
That Section states: 'Every local authority shall provide accommodation for any child in need within their area who has reached the age of sixteen and whose welfare the authority consider is likely to be seriously prejudiced if they do not provide him with accommodation.'
The council attempted to look after the teenager under a different part of the Children Act called Section 17.
That means the teenager would not be taken into care and would not get support once she turned 18.
Section 17 is meant to be used to give support to families and children who are struggling, but not be used as an alternative to avoid taking someone into care under Section 20.
By attempting to look after her under Section 17 the council went against the Government's statutory guidance.
•Council told to say sorry
The council upheld all three complaints the teenager made about how they dealt with her.
An investigation said the council should give her a 'full, written, apology for the delays and the distress this has caused her'.
A council spokesman said: 'Whilst we cannot comment in detail on individual cases, we recognise that some of our initial practice in this case could have been better and we have taken action to address this.
'The safety of young people is always our first priority and we work hard, with our partners, to place homeless young people in accommodation that can meet their needs.
'This young woman is now one of our care leavers, and as her corporate parents we are working hard to ensure that she has the support she needs.'