London Borough of Sutton: Developing person-centred support for Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children and young people

As the number and regularity of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) arriving in Sutton increases, the council have reviewed how best to support these young people in their community. The authority have looked at how the same high standards of support their social care team provides to all children and young people can be tailored to meet the particular needs of UASC.

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London Borough of Sutton have upskilled and engaged their care team to all be able to apply their trauma-informed practice to UASC; refined processes and developed relationships to be able to offer the best matched support (with the highest chances of longer-term success) to each young person; and raised the profile and networks of UASC locally to support integration.

The challenge

As a London borough, Sutton have always taken in consistent numbers of UASC arriving in their area. With these numbers rising and referrals from the NTS the team had to look at how to best meet the needs of UASC arriving in the borough in terms of:

  • Social care team capacity.
  • Delivering their model of trauma informed support and person-centred planning to unaccompanied children.
  • Providing suitable placements for the short- and longer-term.

At the same time they wanted to address:

  • Managing children’s expectations and local staff, carers and community responses to that
  • Integration and raising awareness of the needs of UASC locally, and
  • Providing access to education and social support for young people.

The solution

Support for UASC in Sutton is provided by the council’s Children Looked After and Leaving Care Service. There is not a separate team for UASC. This means that all the council’s social workers and personal advisors in the Children Looked After and Leaving Care Service gain experience of working with a range of different client groups, including how best to support UASC. All team members are trauma-informed practitioners and offer person-centred support to the children and young people they work with.

The support package available to all children and young people in the area, is relatively similar despite their different routes into the service. However the team have developed some key aspects of their support for UASC based on their experience and desire to best meet their needs.

The team is stable, experienced, and confident in their understanding of unaccompanied children’s needs. The team’s ethos is based on empathy, built on an understanding of what it is like to be an unaccompanied child. Sutton’s team act as advocates for UASC in their area, always making decisions based on their best interests.

Everyone takes a respectful approach with the children and young people, with behaviour modelled by the Team Managers. Training on aspects of the lives of UASC supports this team-wide approach. Some team members have even volunteered in Calais to help develop their understanding of the experiences of refugees. New team members are given significant training and mentoring by other team members to upskill them.

The Sutton team put a lot of effort into arranging suitable accommodation for UASC who move into their area. They strongly believe that a good match is better than a quick or local match, as it gives the young person the best and most stable start in this country.

The local authority has a framework of placement providers and the team take time getting to know them, their staff, their support offer and their skills. Their aim is to be able to make the best possible match between each child and their placement.

Examples of this in practice include:

  • placing a young Eritrean man with a foster carer from the same region who was able to provide him with familiar food and shared culture
  • ensuring a very young Arabic-speaking girl was placed with a foster carer who also spoke Arabic
  • placing a group of young boys together who had made the journey to the UK with each other and who had therefore already shared experiences with, and started to support, one another.

All children have a review with their social worker every four-six weeks, with an interpreter. Interpreters are involved even in cases where the young person has good English skills if something important and specific is going to be discussed (for example a housing application) to ensure that the young person has full access to the conversation. As is the case for all looked after children in the borough, these reviews are called “all about me” reviews. Initially they support staff to get to know the child, their preferences and needs and their culture.

To make these reviews more accessible and child focused, the reviews are split into two parts:

  1. Formal aspects of the process, including the completion of paperwork and the input of professionals. This may not require the presence of the young person.
  2. Child-led meetings. Each young person can choose where and how this aspect of their review takes place. The aim is to cover what’s needed but in a way that is informal and appropriate for a child. Choices that young people have made include meeting at an Eritrean restaurant and talking to their social worker whilst they are engaged in another activity like baking, sports, or craft activities.

Every quarter the team carry out a review of their cases and ask UASC for feedback on the support they have received. Interpreters are used (either in person or using a remote service like the Language Line) to allow the child to fully express themselves. Similarly, social workers initially set up a system with unaccompanied children and young people whereby they are encouraged to message their social worker with an emoji if they want to contact them – making this contact as straightforward as possible. 

As part of their journey to the UK, many UASC have been in contact with traffickers. These traffickers have often sold the child and their families details of a package of support which they claim is available on arrival in the country. For example, that they will automatically be given their own house, phone and laptop. This helps to drive demand for their services. The picture that unaccompanied children have of what life will be like for them can therefore be unrealistic meaning that they make inappropriate requests of the professionals and carers working to support them. This can be challenging for council staff and carers to deal with.

Rather than seeing these requests as evidence of a sense of entitlement, staff in Sutton are encouraged to see how these attitudes have developed because children have been tricked and betrayed. Staff also know that unaccompanied children can become even more traumatised and disillusioned when their expectations about a new life in the UK are not met. The team aim to support UASC with their future planning by discussing a range of possible options. This includes frequent “triple planning” conversations, considering the three possible outcomes of an asylum claim. However they also ensure staff and carers are talking to them over time about what support is available in this country, how services work, how the NTS works and what help and support UASC are entitled to. This message is reiterated to children throughout their journey, alongside them being given counselling and help to come to terms with the trauma they have experienced.

Team training on UASC is run by the social care team and open to local service providers, others in the council and anyone interested in finding out more. The team are also empowered to challenge the views of, and assumptions made, by other professionals regarding UASC and the support they need.

The team see it as their role to highlight to fellow professionals, local people, and service commissioners how much of an asset unaccompanied children and young people can be to the local area, and how proud Sutton should be of the support it provides to them. One example of this is that UASC have presented to local councillors during a young person’s session. The team’s actions reflect that all UASC are treated as children who are potentially vulnerable in the same way as all their looked after children’s cohort. The team are encouraged to share their experiences and use reflective practice, to strengthen this cultural approach.

Sutton also takes its responsibilities for the education of UASC very seriously. All arriving young people are enrolled with a virtual school which is provided by a council contractor. They are also given a laptop and can access tutoring support. UASC are also provided with the Flash Academy App which delivers ESOL training in the child’s home language. In addition, a monthly youth group is run for UASC which is typically attended by around 10 to 15 young people. The sessions aim to help build independence and are particularly popular amongst young people who are new to the borough. These events are held in the council’s social work office, which is a large space with a lounge well suited to hold informal events. Refreshments and activities are provided. At these events, young people can meet up with their social worker and make friends perhaps even from their home country. This promotes the development of friendships and support networks.

The impacts

  • All staff and managers in the Children Looked After and Leaving Care Service are skilled in delivering high quality care planning to UASC young people and care leavers with an asylum-seeking background.
  • Increased participation in council decision making (i.e.: UASC are integrated members of the Children in Care Council).
  • Increased strategic awareness of support needs for UASC. They are a commissioning priority - bespoke homes established for UASC care leavers build community links and reduce isolation. It is known that isolation compounds the impact of trauma so this approach addresses that.
  • Building positive and local support networks also reduces the risk of exploitation.

Lessons learned

The team in Sutton believe that the key elements of a successful approach to working with UASC is to have:

  • A stable team of professionals in place.
  • A team ethos which promotes passionate and understanding professionals who advocate for UASC in their area with those outside the team.
  • Support from senior management for whatever approach is taken locally.
  • A child first/child focused strategy.
  • Sufficient time allocation to a) get to know UASC and local service providers and b) match UASC to appropriate placements and support.