The absence of a supportive and responsible adult in the life of a child prior to reaching developmental independence puts the child in a vulnerable position. In particular, children who are homeless and unaccompanied do not have the continuity or support offered by an effective caregiver and are likely to need protective support.
Under the Supported Accommodation Assistance Act 1994 a person is homeless if they have inadequate access to safe and secure housing. In relation to children reported to Child Protection, homelessness refers to those who no longer live at home and do not have anywhere to reside.
An unaccompanied child is one who does not have a supportive or responsible adult in their life to provide them with the continuity of support offered by an effective caregiver.
Child Protection must commence a protective investigation of any unaccompanied homeless child under the age of 16 years reported to Child Protection, except in exceptional circumstances.
Core tasks for the practitioner include:
- completion of an intake risk assessment on CRIS
- ensuring crisis support and assistance is available and provided for immediate protection (for example, accommodation)
- ensuring a focus on the child's age and associated safety and developmental needs, and if protective concerns are substantiated, their care and wellbeing
- consideration of services to assist the reunification of the child with their family or extended family (for example, mediation services)
- consideration of services to address emotional and psychological needs (for example, counselling services or support services regarding trauma from abuse).
Timely intervention with homeless children is important to ensure their safety and prevent a worsening of the crisis they are experiencing. Workers from all agencies involved with the child should ensure that responses and provision of interim support arrangements occur in a timely manner. Child Protection will take responsibility for planning and coordinating any necessary protective intervention (including legal action) or referring the child to a community service organisation (CSO).
The priority and timing of the protective investigation will be determined in accordance with Child Protection policy. There may be occasions where, due to exceptional circumstances, proceeding to a protective investigation may not be in the child's best interests. In this situation, the intake risk assessment should record a clear rationale.
When the intake risk assessment decision determines that protective intervention is not required, Child Protection should assess whether the child or their family is in need of support and make appropriate referrals, if required, before closing the report.
Where an investigation occurs and the risk assessment decision is to substantiate, a case plan must be developed for the child. Child Protection should meet with the parents, family members and key staff from relevant organisation's to formulate and enact a plan including making decisions about required actions.
Where there is no CSO case manager, the child protection practitioner will consider the following actions:
- ensuring the child has immediate access to safe and secure accommodation
- arranging support for the child and their family
- referring the child to a CSO, including Child FIRST, to address identified issues
- arranging a joint case conference involving the child, family and other services that are involved with the child, to develop a case plan and clarify what actions need to be taken
- reviewing the risk assessment if new information is received.
In many cases, after investigation, it may be anticipated that a child under the age of 16 years will return to their family. The practitioner may refer the child or family to other community supports, as required. In situations in which there are a number of professionals involved with the family and where it is assessed following a protective investigation and risk assessment indicates that no further protective involvement is required, the child protection practitioner should consider holding a case conference to prepare a closure plan prior to closing the case.
Where protective concerns have been substantiated in relation to a child under the age of 16 years and further protective involvement is required to ensure the child's safety and development needs are met, and their care and wellbeing provided for, a case plan will be prepared and implemented.
If the child under 16 years is assessed to be in need of protection and needs to be placed in out-of-home care, the practitioner, in consultation with their supervisor or team manager will determine what action will be taken. This includes:
- placement of the child within their kinship network;
- placement of the child in an approved voluntary home based care placement; or
- issuing a protection application and applying for an interim or final protection order.
If the homeless child under 16 years is subject to a protection order, Child Protection is responsible for monitoring the child and implementing a plan to address the identified issues.
All reports received with regards to unaccompanied homeless children need to be considered in line with the SAFER children framework. It is sometimes the case that the focus on the presenting issue of homelessness may detract from a more holistic approach to assessment, taking into account a child’s emotional and developmental needs. This is particularly pertinent in the case of children under the age of 16 years.
Homelessness needs to be recognised as a crisis situation for children and as such requires timely and considered risk assessment and intervention.
Homelessness in itself does not constitute a ground for being at risk of harm pursuant to s. 162 of the CYFA. However, it can raise concerns about the child’s safety and wellbeing.
Reports received by Child Protection in relation to unaccompanied homeless children aged 16-17 years will be assessed on their merits and proceed to protective investigation if the child is considered to be at risk of significant harm or in need of protection. For this older group, it is unlikely that legal action or protection orders will be pursued, and joint casework with support services will follow most cases.
In relation to reports received concerning children under the age of 16 years, the priority and timing of the child protection investigation will be determined by the child protection practitioner, in consultation with their supervisor, consistent with investigation policy.
In circumstances in which a protective investigation is undertaken, appropriate support services will be arranged by the child protection practitioner.
At the completion of the investigation and risk assessment, if the protective concerns have not been substantiated a case conference should be considered to develop a support plan for the child.
If the protective concerns are substantiated a case plan is required for the child and decisions need to be made regarding who will be responsible for the future coordination of the case and which agency will complete specific tasks and provide certain support. Child Protection will provide case management where it is assessed that further Child Protection involvement is warranted.
Where the homeless child is subject to a protection order, in particular a family reunification order, a care by Secretary order or a long-term care order, ongoing case management responsibility rests with child protection, or a CSO if responsibility is contracted to it. Child protection will provide necessary support to a homeless child who is subject to one of the above protection orders for the duration of the order. This support will incorporate the necessary case planning and review processes including planning for leaving care.
Referral of a homeless child to an accommodation service without arrangements for a best interests assessment and potential ongoing case management is usually not a sufficient Child Protection response.