London Borough of Barnet: Developing a specialist team and tailored support services to best meet the needs of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children

Barnet has increasing numbers of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) moving into their area, all needing tailored support from social, welfare and educational services up to the age of 25. Based on experience, the council is developing a specialist team particularly skilled and experienced to work with UASC. This team has identified gaps in UASC support locally, such as educational engagement and access to finances, and has taken steps to address these.

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 Barnet has increasing numbers of UASC moving into their area, all needing tailored support from social, welfare and educational services up to the age of 25. Based on experience, the council is developing a specialist team particularly skilled and experienced to work with UASC. This team has identified gaps in UASC support locally, such as educational engagement and access to finances, and has taken steps to address these.

They now work with local partners to deliver onsite English as a second language (ESOL) classes alongside acclimatization, social support and life skills. In addition they were able to identify additional funding routes that they can access for their 18+ UASC with no recourse.

The challenge

The number of Unaccompanied Asylum-Seeking Children (UASC) in London is currently high and always has been. Once young people move into the area they come under the council’s care until they are at least aged 21 years of age. This means that their needs and circumstances will change substantially whist they are cared for as they mature.

UASC go through very specific processes (such as applying for residency, if granted refugee/ asylum status by the Home Office) and can face unique challenges and circumstances. The social worker role of supporting UASC is therefore quite different, requiring specialist skills and knowledge and particular commitment to supporting these young people in the most suitable ways.

The solution

Barnet’s social care team have developed a specialist team to ensure that its staff were equipped to provide effective support to UASC.

This specialist team includes social workers and personal advisors professionals who can support children and teenagers as well as those over 18. This means that the same team supports UASC young people between the ages of 16 to 25, who are waiting for the outcome of their immigration application, until they become adults.

New referrals of UASC are referred to the team directly via MASH (Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub). Whereas, previously UASC would be transferred from MASH to duty and assessments teams and then children in care teams, with the advent of the new UASC team, young people are referred and remain with the same social work team, which helps reduce transition points. As a result, the UASC team can build strong relationships with young people as they support them through their entire transition into adulthood.

The council has now set up a system whereby in addition to an initial UASC referral from the MASH team, the specialist UASC team are also involved from the outset. For example, NTS referrals are now sent to the MASH and UASC teams at the same time, which allows for a quicker resolution.

The UASC team are responsible for helping UASC:

  • get into education, training and/or work, with the support of Virtual Schools, BELS (Barnet Education and Learning Service) and Drive Forward Foundation
  • find a temporary or long-term council accommodation, depending on their immigration status
  • claim financial support
  • apply for asylum
  • build a settled and productive life.

The specialist UASC team has an in-depth knowledge and understanding of these areas and the specific needs of UASC.

It became clear to council staff working with UASC 18+ that local colleges did not always have sufficient capacity to provide learning opportunities to UASC moving into the area. English as a second language (ESOL) courses were unable to offer enough places for the local cohort of young people who needed it.  As a result, a pilot ESOL course has been set up for 12 weeks, on site at the team office space. One positive outcome is that young people taking the course have been able to start building informal support networks with peers who know what they are going through and how to offer comfort to each other.

Another issue facing 18+ UASC with no recourse, was how to access financial support during the cost-of-living crisis. Traditionally, UASC could secure subsistence and a bursary or maintenance allowance from the college they were enrolled with. More recently however, education providers have reduced the amounts available and/or altered how they allocate the funds. For example, instead of providing cash payments, colleges now support students by providing free transport to college and covering the costs of lunches. The impact of this on some UASC aged 18+ with no recourse, was that they were struggling to afford to live, buy food and pay their utility bills etc. The team secured limited additional funding through 'boost household fund' (the household support fund) in order to support young people with their utility bills.

Working in the specialist team requires a great deal of commitment. Supporting UASC, particularly the high proportion who are male adolescents, presents different challenges from those faced by social workers when they support non-UASC children. Keyworkers and carers for this cohort must be willing to model behaviours to the young people. They must also provide opportunities for the young people to practice life skills and develop independence. The team is diverse but with a shared perspective on how best to work with UASC. The diversity is seen as important so that the young people see representations of themselves amongst their professional support networks.

Specialising in working with UASC means that the team can support young people through the process of applying for refugee status. This is a crucial stage in each child’s journey and without having confirmed status they cannot settle or plan their future. Working as a specialist team also promotes continual discussion of young people’s progress, achievements or challenges and supports a better understanding of the status of individuals. Everyone on the team is informed of what needs to happen throughout the application process. They have all also dealt with a wide range of outcomes.

“The Refugee/Asylum leave document is like a lifeline to many young people.”  - Team manager

The UASC team have triple planning conversations with each unaccompanied child to prepare them to deal with any of the three possible outcomes from the process. These are: having their status approved; having their claim rejected, or the process rolling on further.  

These planning conversations help to prepare the young person emotionally and mentally for whichever outcome may result. The team also help young people to set out their next steps in all their personal plans. The UASC team can chase up solicitors on progress or actions they were supposed to take.

Barnet has also taken part in a trial of Home Office interviews carried out remotely. This has meant that young people can undertake these vital interviews whilst in a familiar space, and with the support of their social worker. They do not need to travel to Croydon or sit in a room alone facing an unknown panel. This approach has been highly successful. Young people are more likely to attend the appointments and are more relaxed during the interview. This means that they can express themselves more effectively and be more engaged with the event. Ultimately this supports better decision making.

In response to the difficulties UASC 18+ have found in accessing local college places the council’s social care team have joined up with their counterparts in the education and learning team. Jointly they have developed a 12-week course of regular learning activities for local UASC.

The local authority offices' are a safe space for young people of the UASC service, where they can access food and refreshments are supplied, alongside cooking and clothes washing facilities. There is a multi-agency presence in the Service as apart from allocated workers, we also have staff from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Drive Forward (a local employability support service specifically for care leavers), the BELS education team and Terapia (an organisation who provide counselling and therapy services).

The impact

Having a specialist UASC team in place has meant that:

  • UASC always receive help from council staff with:
    • the most experience of working with young people with similar experiences and needs
    • the most knowledge of how to meet their needs
    • passion and commitment to support this group and advocate for them more widely.
  • Placements are now allocated sooner and are a better match for the child’s needs
  • The council effectively supports UASC through their legal process.
  • UASC can work with one team throughout their transition to adulthood.
  • The team has been able to develop an educational package specifically to promote UASC ESOL, with added benefits being the offer of a peer support group and life skills gained through group learning.
  • Links have been established with a range of local partners who can offer further support to UASC (including with the move into work and accessing financial support).

How is the new approach being sustained?

The team invests in upskilling, training and informing their team members as well as valuing them.

Lessons learned

  • Good communications systems with the Home Office, police and the National Transfer Scheme team are vital
  • Opportunities for UASC-supporting professionals to come together (in London, for example, through LASC (London Asylum Seekers Consortium) and Catch 22 meetings) are helpful for reflection and a joint understanding of areas of practice across London and nationally.
  • There is still a need for cross border cooperation with EU partner agencies but not many clear pathways to achieve this.