The Guardian November 28, 2001


Britain: Homeless families may lose children.

by Caroline Colebrook 

Homeless families are facing the prospect of having their children taken 
into care while the parents are forced on to the streets after a High Court 
ruling last May. The ruling says that councils have an obligation to house 
homeless children  but not their parents.

Since then many cash-strapped councils up and down the country have started 
the legal procedures to evict families who have been in temporary 
accommodation "too long".

In many cases the councils are claiming that the threatened families have 
deliberately made themselves homeless  but this description can cover a 
multitude of technicalities.

In the past, when a long strike has meant workers losing their mortgage, 
the council has regarded them as intentionally homeless.

In one of the current cases, a father sold the family house and disappeared 
with the money. The wife and children have been declared intentionally 
homeless.

Another family has been designated intentionally homeless because they 
turned down an offer of a flat that was too small and too far away from the 
children's schools.

The housing charity Shelter says: "We've dealt with a string of cases 
across the country in the last three months where social services are 
telling homeless families their children should be taken away and fostered 
or put in local authority care.

"Councils are saying the only service they are obliged to provide is care 
for the children."

Shelter has also pointed out that this is economic nonsense. It costs far 
more to look after children in care than it would to provide a home for the 
whole family.

In none of these cases has there been any allegation that the parents are 
failing to care for their children adequately.

But the desperate lack of affordable accommodation and the run down of 
council housing is at the root of the problem.

The Children Act of 1989 places the interests of the children above all 
considerations in offering council services. This has been invoked by 
homeless families to gain accommodation.

But last April the London Boroughs of Barnet and Lambeth challenged this in 
court and won the ruling that they are obliged only to house the children. 
Both councils are desperately short of accommodation for homeless families.

One family in the West Country, with three children of six, 10 and 13, was 
evicted by their private landlord immediately after getting into rent 
arrears.

Their local authority homeless persons' unit passed them on to social 
services, who declared that no help could be given to the family as a whole 
but suggested putting the children in care. The shocked family joined a 
group of travellers.

In the east Midlands a young woman with children aged six years and three 
months has been told by social services that the children should he taken 
into care after she was moved into a hostel for the homeless. She is still 
breast feeding the three-month-old.

In south London, a family with four children has moved from one temporary 
accommodation to another for the last five years after the father's 
employer closed down.

They say: "We turned down one tiny flat because it was miles away from the 
children's schools. The council has now said that if we become homeless 
again they will involve social services, which means taking the children."

"The children don't know. I can't bear to tell them", said the mother. "My 
husband is now ill with extremely bad stress.

"We spent five of the most important years of the kids' childhood just 
moving around and now this. You can't even rent privately because nobody 
wants to take you if you're on benefits."

One young mother with children of 15 and 10, in a one bedroom hostel in 
north London, has received an eviction order for next week.

She said: "The council has repeatedly told me they will take the children 
into care but they are offering nothing for me. I'm terribly frightened. It 
would be my very worst nightmare, and it's getting closer all the time.

"I'm too terrified to tell the children what's going on. No one will help.

I don't know what to do."

Russell Campbell, the chief solicitor of Shelter, has said: "We will 
challenge individual cases where we can. As things stand, it's only a 
matter of time before family members will be separated."

Karen Buck MP, a member of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select 
Committee has expressed deep concern and says she hopes to change the law 
to plug the loophole so that once again the Children's Act will operate to 
keep families together.

But it is no good Parliament passing a law if it does not equip local 
authorities with the means to house homeless families  and that means 
defending existing council housing and then building a lot more.

Slavish adherence to "market forces" is driving up the cost of homes and 
putting them out reach of ordinary families. Housing associations are 
mortgaged to the banks  who really control their policies. This means 
rents affected by market forces and less security for tenants, who can all 
too easily find themselves out on the street and in need of emergency 
accommodation.

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New Worker, newspaper of New Communist Party of Britain.

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