Norfolk County Council’s high-performing Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children team

Norfolk County Council has established a high-performing specialist county team that supports the emotional, cultural, health, social and educational needs of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) who arrive in the county.

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Since 2018, Norfolk County Council has transformed the way in which they provide services to young people allocated via the National Transfer Scheme (NTS).  They have established a high-performing specialist county team that supports the emotional, cultural, health, social and educational needs of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) who arrive in the county. This has been achieved through:

  • understanding the current and changing needs of the cohort of young people
  • advocating for services and approaches that are meaningful for the young people
  • developing strong community based, regional and national partnerships.

As a result, this relationship-based and whole systems approach has supported asylum-seeking young people to thrive in Norfolk’s care.

The challenge:

Prior to 2018, Norfolk County Council were unable to accept UASC through the (then-voluntary) NTS due to being on a children’s services improvement journey. However, over the last four years, the council has gone through a process of significant change which has allowed them to respond to an increase in the number of UASC arriving in the county. The council has participated in the NTS as well as the Dubs, Dublin III, the Vulnerable Children’s Resettlement Scheme, spontaneous arrivals, young people directly from Dover port and now young people from multiple adult dispersal hotels recently opening in Norfolk.

Some of the challenges the council encountered:

  • focus on how to manage the demand on services and build capacity in the longer term
  • the need to build expertise across the service in relation to supporting UASC to support meaningful engagement with this cohort
  • limited regional and national partnerships to promote outcomes and best practice
  • the need for sustainable and sufficient placements local to Norfolk.

The solution:

Norfolk Council set up a specialist team to provide consistent support, specialist knowledge and bespoke responses across the county for asylum-seeking young people. The county team went live in June 2019 with three workers and part-time business support. The offer from the team has grown to accommodate the increasing numbers of UASC in Norfolk, which has risen from 35 to 45 young people in mid-2019 to over 300 at the end of 2022. At any time, around 150 (85 prior to the dispersal hotels opening) are children looked after and the remainder are supported by leaving care teams. There are now two county teams delivering in parallel (in the same footprint), we are setting up a third team now and expect to grow to a fourth team in early 2023.

A service manager has been appointed to not only lead across teams but to continue to develop a strong vision for UASC in the county. This has led to a set of aspirational outcomes that Norfolk would like to see achieved for the young people in their care with a relationship-based approach at its centre.

This has supported the creation of a multi-disciplinary team that is staffed with social workers, personal advisers, a psychotherapist, a welfare rights officer, a dedicated housing officer and Higher-Level Teaching Assistant (HLTA). This allows, the needs of the young people to be effectively understood to ensure supports are put into place at the earliest stage.

In addition, this has also bolstered effective multi-agency partnership working with partners across Norfolk from health, education, placement commissioners and the voluntary sector in working together to achieve best outcomes.  Co-production is also a significant part of the work Norfolk does, with a robust UASC forum within the Norfolk In Care Council and many young people providing their views to Ministers and other elected Members who visit Norfolk.

The impact:

Norfolk County Council has been named best transferring Local Authority in the East Region in August 2022. The specialist county service has been able to successfully provide expert, timely and targeted support to young people who have experienced often traumatic experiences prior to arriving in the UK. Having a strong vision for UASC support in the county underpinned by a relationship-based approach at all levels has supported the development of strong partnerships and establishing a common purpose locally, regionally and also nationally. The service sees partners as an extension of ‘us’ and this has had a positive impact in the following areas:

  • Increase in placement suitability and availability as the placements team, placement providers and foster carers/ supervising social workers understand the specific needs of UASC and can build expertise in providing support for this cohort. Further to this, on-going dialogues has supported in changing the placement model as the services has changed from supporting predominantly 17 to18-year- old’s to an increase in those aged under 16 years old and also those with young children.
  • There has been additional work to ensure young people can develop a support with other young people in Norfolk’s care. Some placements are in close proximity to one another to allow young people to develop relationships with others from similar backgrounds. This is important given that some parts of the county are particularly rural.
  • There has also been planning with commissioning services for young people who are ready to transition into leaving care services. The council rents 12 flats from a local housing association where young people can live while awaiting their housing officer decision. This is affordable for the Council and for its young people so they can continue to live there once they receive housing benefit once asylum has been granted, until they are ready to move on.  There are plans in train to increase this provision as it proves highly effective.
  • At times, it had been difficult to meet the religious and cultural needs of the young people accommodated in the county. However, the team worked creatively with local religious leaders to ensure young people can access appropriate faith services, religious texts, and items such as prayer mats. The service also worked to bring religious leaders from other parts of the country to deliver services virtually and has worked with providers to reduce costs of transportation for group travel to places of worship. This innovative approach has created a sense of safety and connection for the young people accessing these services.
  • Partnerships have been developed with CAMHS and investment in understanding the emotional and mental needs of young people within the UASC cohort. This has resulted in the council providing sleep packs to help young people who might experience trouble sleeping and night terrors to feel more settled and welcomed into the county. This also led to the appointment of a dedicated psychotherapist who supports the staff and the young people in respect of the trauma experienced.
  • Educational outcomes for UASC have been extremely positive which is a result of timely and targeted educational support at the earliest opportunity. This has resulted in a number of young people attaining A-Levels and going onto further and higher education.
  • Very close working relationships with the police and health agencies allowing a bespoke and best practice response to specific health needs and the risk of exploitation and modern slavery which we now support other LAs to develop.
  • The immigration process is known to be complex and can retraumatise young people. Norfolk has built a partnership with the Home Office to trial virtual Home Office interviews and the use of a Home Office mobile unit to conduct biometric testing without young people having to travel to London or Birmingham. This has been received well by the young people going through the process.
  • Having a specialist team has meant that young people have timely assessment of need and access to support. For example, education planning meetings take place within two weeks of arrival. This helps is to understand their education needs and no delay to their education, including ESOL needs. Timely social work and health assessments help the teams to understand young people’s journeys and needs in placement and they work with Red Cross on tracing relatives and helping young people to get in touch with family members. Norfolk has also been working to quickly capture information about who young people coming into the county are and their needs to identify risks for human trafficking, prevent children from going missing and quickly locate them and ensure their safety if they do.

How is the new approach being sustained?

The service is being sustained through using the Council’s allocation of central government funding from the NTS. As such, the county team continues to grow in proportion to the numbers of young people coming into the county.  The assistant director works closely with the senior and executive leadership teams, also the elected Members, to ensure that all are kept abreast of the changing picture; this enables them to support the service and engage others in discussions about the service.  The council as a whole supports the UASC service, they are all proud of the work the service completes – Norfolk has a long history of welcoming those seeking refuge from abroad into the county.

Norfolk works closely with the Strategic Migration Partnership and with the Home Office and DfE to ensure that we are using best practice and accessing all financial opportunities to develop the service.  The council have made the commitment to leaders and elected Members that we will never work outside of our budget and since 2019, despite the very significant challenge since September 2022, we have to date achieved this and expect to do the same in the years ahead.

Norfolk have done this through the ongoing support of partner agencies and community groups who make a significant difference.  It allows all in Norfolk to ‘knit’ together the support available to young people, enabling a comprehensive and system-wide response despite the financial limitations.  The providers of UASC specific accommodation play a significant role, they have worked in close partnership to ensure sufficient and affordable accommodation despite the number of under 18-year-olds almost doubling in the past three months.

This has enabled the service to cope with the recent dramatic rise in numbers, with the service receiving over 60 unexpected referrals for young people under the age of 18 from September to December 2022 when adult dispersal hotels started to open in the county. 

Lessons learned:

  • It has been essential to have a strong vision for care of UASC in Norfolk.  Their vision of claiming young people as Norfolk young people has helped to bring together agencies throughout the community to support young people.
  • Leaders have championed the needs of young people through visible and passionate leadership which has prevented the push back experienced in other councils.
  • Due to the way Norfolk has built the service, they have coped well with the new NTS, despite the cycles for transfer occurring every one to two weeks (previously every one to two months).
  • Senior managers have learnt that the best staff to recruit are those with a heart for UASC; skills and experience can be taught, but their motivation allows them to cope with the very busy times they often experience.
  • Forecasting and planning for the future remains extremely challenging, however due to the infrastructure Norfolk has developed, it has allowed the service and partners to cope when numbers suddenly increase.  Norfolk has experienced high numbers coming into Norfolk a number of times and has become practiced at developing new infrastructure very quickly.
  • The development and sustained growth of the service remains challenging, however the partnership approach, system wide learning and development of services has enabled Norfolk to continue to grow and meet need in the best way.
  • Important learning for Norfolk is how it is essential to support the staff working within the service, with the impact of high numbers coming in a short space of time but particularly with the impact of hearing the trauma and experiences of the young people in their care.  

Kate Dexter, Assistant Director Children's Social Care: [email protected]