Social services duties to children leaving care
Social services must prepare children for leaving care, assist care leavers and publish information relating to what support they offer.
- Social services' duties to children leaving care
- Looked after children
- Implying a leaving care duty
- Assessment and responsibility
- Pathway plans and personal advisers
- Financial support
- Accommodation for care leavers
- Other duties to former relevant children
- Advice and assistance for qualifying young people
- Conditions on assistance given under the Children Act 1989
- Care leavers approaching a different authority
- Homelessness duties to care leavers
Social services' duties to children leaving care
Social services has duties under the Children Act 1989 to prepare children for leaving care. Social services must publish information relating to what support it offers to care leavers. It also has duties and powers to assist care leavers depending on their age, when they left care, and for how long they were in care.
Detailed guidance to the Children Act 1989 and associated regulations has been issued by the Department for Education.
Corporate parenting principles
In carrying out any duty to a care leaver who is a relevant or former relevant child under the age of 25, the local authority (not just social services) must:
act in the young person's best interests, and promote her/his physical and mental health and well-being
encourage care leavers to express their views, wishes and feelings, and take them into account
help those young people gain access to, and make the best use of, services provided by the local authority and its relevant partners
promote high aspirations in, and seek to secure the best outcomes for care leavers
ensure the safety of care leavers, and stability in their home lives, relationships and education or work
prepare them for adulthood and independent living
English national pathway model
In England, the national Care Leavers Accommodation and Support Framework, based on the Positive Youth Accommodation Pathway model, aims to help organisations supporting young people in their transition to adulthood to identify, review and re-design services and better accommodation options for care leavers.
The framework is not prescriptive and may be useful particularly to local authority commissioners, leaving care and housing options managers, and providers of housing and support for young people. It sets out five steps that local authorities and their partners should take in order to prevent youth homelessness and devise positive accommodation pathways for care leavers.
The five steps are:
train young people on tenancies and the housing market
involve young people in planning their accommodation
reduce the housing crisis by having emergency options
commission a wide range of housing types
develop skills and confidence ahead of a move to independent living
Looked after children
For the purposes of the Children Act 1989, children and young people are 'looked-after' if they have been provided with accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 for at least 24 hours.
For the purposes of the Children Act, children and young people are:
eligible children – young people in care for at least one day aged 16 and 17, and who have been looked after for (a total of) at least 13 weeks from the age of 14. Where the time spent in care is part of a series of 'short breaks' which total 75 days or less in any 12 month period, the 16 or 17 year old is not an eligible child. A short break is a period of 17 days or less which the child spends in the same accommodation, or with the same person and after which the child returns to their parent or person with parental responsibility. This usually excludes children in respite care from the definition of eligible children
relevant children – young people aged 16 or 17 who have already left care, and were eligible children before leaving care. For this definition, the child ceases to be a relevant child if they live continuously for six months or more with a parent or person with parental responsibility and are then a 'qualifying young person'. If this arrangement breaks down, while the child is still 16 or 17, however, they once again become a relevant child. A 16 or 17 year old is also a relevant child if they would have been in care on their 16th birthday, but were detained in the criminal justice system or in hospital and had immediately previous to detention or hospital spent a total of at least 13 weeks in care when aged 14 or above. The calculation of these 13 weeks excludes any time spent in a 'pre-planned series of short term placements' of up to four weeks where the child returned to their parent or person with parental responsibility after the placement
former relevant children – young people aged 18 or over who have been eligible or relevant children
qualifying young people – young people under the age of 21 who have spent at least one day in care or privately fostered while over the age of 16. Qualifying young people may not be entitled to full leaving care duties because they have not spent at least 13 weeks in care, because they are privately fostered rather than looked after by social services, because their care was made up of a series of short breaks or short term placements or because they spent six months or more with a parent or person with parental responsibility when aged 16 or 17 and this arrangement did not break down
Implying a leaving care duty
A duty to accommodate a child under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 can sometimes be implied even where it has not explicitly been accepted. This situation might arise a local authority states it has provided a child with 'help with accommodation' under section 17 of the Act rather than having accepted an accommodation duty under section 20, and would mean that leaving care duties would arise at age 18.
An implied duty may exist where accommodation has been provided by the local authority, either by social services or under the auspices of social services.
The provision of accommodation to a child by UKVI as asylum support could not be regarded as the provision of accommodation under section 20.
However, in a case where the failure of the local authority to provide accommodation under section 20 resulted from an erroneous assessment of a child's age and such an error came to light after the child had turned 18, the local authority could legitimately be asked to exercise its discretion to provide some assistance for 'former relevant children' which might take the form of some or all of the support available under section 23C, which it would otherwise have been obliged to provide.
In another case, where a local authority had failed to accept that being at risk of 'radicalisation' was within the range of factors that could make a young person a child in need, and had consequently refused to provide a young woman in this situation with accommodation under section 20, the court held that she could none-the-less be regarded 'as if she were a former relevant child' once over the age of 18, and not excluded from the full range of services available to care leavers.
Assessment and responsibility
The last local authority to have 'looked after' the young person (ie accommodated them under section 20 of the Children Act) remains responsible for meeting the leaving care duties, regardless of where the young person may now be living in England or Wales.
A pathway assessment should have been carried out for each eligible child when they were aged 16 or 17. This assessment is aimed at establishing what support that child needs, both while still in care and after ceasing to be looked after and forms the basis of the child's pathway plan.
Where a relevant child has not had an assessment of their needs carried out while still an eligible child, the responsible social services must carry out a needs assessment and prepare a pathway plan.
If social services lose touch with a relevant child under the age of 18 it must take reasonable steps, without delay, to re-establish contact and must continue to do so until it succeeds.
Assessments for former relevant children
A former relevant child should have had an assessment carried out while they were an eligible or relevant child. But where social services has ceased to owe leaving care duties to a former relevant child, it must re-assess that young person's needs, specifically their needs around employment, education and training, if the young person informs them before reaching the age of 25 that they want to pursue further education or training.
In addition, from 1 April 2018, social services must carry out an assessment and prepare a pathway plan for a former relevant child who is over 21 but under the age of 25 who informs social services that they wish to receive advice or support, regardless of whether they wish to pursue further education or training. The assessment should determine whether local authority services might assist the young person in meeting their needs, and what advice and support it would be appropriate to provide to the young person to help them obtain those services.
Pathway plans and personal advisers
The following care leavers are entitled to provision of a pathway plan stating the advice, assistance and support social services will provide to assist with the transition to independence, and/or to help the care leaver with education or training, and a personal adviser who will provide advice and support for them and co-ordinate services linking in with other agencies:
former relevant children up their 21st birthday
former relevant children aged under 25 who are pursuing further education or training
(from 1 April 2018) former relevant children aged over 21 but under the age of 25 who have requested it. This extension of the right to a personal adviser and pathway plan is the subject of statutory guidance produced by the government in February 2018: Extending Personal Adviser support to all care leavers to age 25
The pathway plan for relevant children should generally cover accommodation, life skills, education and training, employment, specific support needs, and financial support. It must also spell out the young person's additional needs if they have been the victim of human trafficking or is an unaccompanied asylum seeker. The plan for former relevant children returning to education or training can be less detailed as long as it covers issues relating to meeting education or training goals.
A pathway plan must 'involve a measured evidence based analysis of the young person's continuing need for care, accommodation and support' and should be kept under regular review.
The plan should have concrete targets, not just vague aspirations, so that all parties are clear about the goals within the plan. This makes it easier to establish whether progress is being made and, if not, the reasons for lack of progress should be easy to ascertain, leaving less room for ambiguity.
A young person who is unhappy with their pathway plan can request a review. The request can be made by the young person or by someone else who is involved in their welfare. A review might be requested to address issues around accommodation and homelessness.
Social services must continue to monitor a former relevant child's pathway plan and continue to provide a personal adviser for the young person until they either:
reach the age of 21 and is not education or training
are aged 21 or over and finishes education or training
reach the age of 25 if they have requested assistance until that age
Social services has duties and powers to provide financial support to care leavers.
Eligible and relevant children
Eligible children are supported financially by their responsible social services. Eligible children who are also single parents aged 16 or 17, or who are unable to work due to ill health or disability, can claim income support or income-based jobseeker's allowance even while they are still in care.
For as long as a young person is a relevant child, the responsible social services are usually their primary source of income. Most relevant children cannot claim universal creadit, housing benefit, income-based jobseeker's allowance or income support in England or Wales. However, there are exceptions, similar to those for eligible children. 
Level of support
The financial support for eligible and relevant children from social services should be sufficient to cover the cost of accommodation, food and domestic bills, pocket money, transport costs for education and training, and clothing. Further, children in care and care leavers aged 16 to 18 are eligible to receive a bursary if they remain in full-time education.
There is no prescribed standard for calculating a weekly allowance level for a young person who is a relevant child, but no young person should receive less than they would have received had they been entitled to claim benefits. This does not mean, however, that each young person must receive cash to that amount. The type of support, and how it is delivered, varies from one young person to another. The support provided is coordinated by the young person's personal adviser.
Former relevant children 18 to 21
In so far as their welfare, education or training requires it, former relevant children aged over 18 and under 21 are entitled to:
support with the expenses associated with living near where they are seeking work, working, or receiving education or training
support with the costs of education or training, which can include university tuition fees
other assistance (which may be cash in exceptional circumstances)
If the education or training set out in a care leaver's pathway plan extends beyond their 21st birthday, the support provided in connection with that education or training (including the costs of living nearby) continues for as long as the care leaver attends the course. Temporary interruptions in attendance can be disregarded.
In a case where social services withdrew support from a care leaver when she reached 21 because her pathway plan had not identified that the training course she was on may need to continue beyond her 21st birthday, the court held that her pathway plan was inadequate. The plan failed to set out in realistic terms the steps and time scale for the care leaver to achieve her educational goal and had not been effectively reviewed when her circumstances changed. The authority was ordered to draw up a new plan to determine the care leaver's support needs.
If in higher education, a former relevant child qualifies for a Higher Education Bursary from their local authority and can apply to the college or university for an additional bursary.
More information on financial support for care leavers in higher education is available from Gov.uk.
Former relevant children 21 and over
Where a former relevant child has informed social services before reaching the age of 25 that they want to pursue education or training, that young person is entitled, in so far as their educational or training needs require it, to a:
contribution to the expenses of living near the location of that education or training
grant so that they can meet the expenses connected with the education or training
This assistance continues for as long as the former relevant child remains on the educational or training programme. The young person also qualifies for the Higher Education Bursary if in higher education (see above).
Accommodation for care leavers
Social services have powers and duties to provide accommodation to care leavers:
The leaving care provisions of the Children Act require that relevant children are provided with, or maintained in, suitable accommodation unless the local authority is satisfied that their welfare does not require it. To be suitable, accommodation must be reasonably practicable for the young person given their needs and the local authority must be satisfied as to the suitability of any landlord. These arrangements should be detailed in the young person's active pathway plan.
Generally it would not be appropriate for 16 or 17 year olds to be given the responsibility of sustaining their own tenancy without appropriate support, nor would bed and breakfast accommodation be considered suitable except in very exceptional circumstances and then only two days. It is envisaged that local authorities will make use of a range of accommodation options such as foyers, hostels, self-contained flats, and specialist accommodation in order to fulfil this duty.
Former relevant children aged 18, 19 or 20
Social services have a duty to assist a former relevant child, to the extent that their welfare or education/training requires it, by contributing to the expenses of living near the place where they are working, looking for work, or receiving education or training. The duty continues until the young person's 21st birthday, or until the end of any programme of education or training set out in their pathway plan.
Former relevant children aged 21 or over pursuing education or training
Former relevant children whose responsible authority ceased to owe them leaving care duties, but who inform the authority before reaching the age of 25 that they wish to pursue education or training are entitled, in so far as their educational or training needs require it, to a contribution from the responsible authority towards expenses incurred as a result of living near the place of education or training. This duty to contribute continues while the former relevant child continues in the education.
In a case where a child was rejected for the degree course identified in her pathway plan largely because of her limited immigration status, and was thus unable to follow the educational route that had been approved by the authority, the authority was entitled to refuse to support her through a different course because it was not part of the programme that it had agreed she should follow.
If a former relevant child is in full-time higher education or residential further education in accordance with their pathway plan, and their term-time accommodation is not available, the responsible authority has a duty to provide accommodation during vacations, or to pay the young person enough to secure accommodation for themselves. This could enable a care leaver to continue in education and not become homeless during the holidays. The duty continues for as long as they continue to pursue the course of education.
Staying Put arrangements
Where a former relevant child and their local authority foster carer wish to continue to live together after the child ceases to be looked after, the responsible local authority has a duty to monitor any such 'staying put' arrangement, and to provide advice, assistance and support to enable the arrangement to continue.
Claiming benefits towards housing costs
Most claimants aged under 22 years old are eligible for the housing costs element of universal credit. A claimant aged 18 or over and under 22 who had been provided with accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989, and who was an eligible or relevant child under the Children Act 1989 before turning 18 has always been able to claim the housing costs element under universal credit and never been subject to the shared accommodation rate.
A young person who has been accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act, even if only for one day, is exempt up to the age of 22 from the housing benefit restrictions that apply to people under the age of 35.
Joint housing protocols for care leavers
A joint housing protocol should help children’s services and housing authorities deliver the local accommodation offered to care leavers and prevent homelessness. It should set out commitments as corporate parents, and how these will be delivered in practice.
Guidance on Joint housing protocols for care leavers: good practice advice promotes the development of joint protocols that can help local authorities to meet the accommodation needs of care leavers.
Other duties to former relevant children
Where a former relevant child is aged between 21 and 25 and has informed the local authority that they wish to receive advice and support, the duty to assess applies as above.
Where the former relevant child is not receiving such advice or support, social services should offer to provide it as soon as possible after the young person's 21st birthday, or at least once in every 12 months.
If the former relevant child does request assistance, then the local authority has a duty to provide any appropriate advice and support identified in the assessment to assist them obtaining services which might help meet their needs.
Advice and assistance for qualifying young people
Care leavers under the age of 21, and some under the age of 25, who were in care for any period after reaching the age of 16 may qualify for advice and/or assistance under section 24 of the Children Act 1989 whether or not they are owed full leaving care duties.
A child may have been in care because they were:
looked after by the local authority
accommodated in a private children's home or by a voluntary organisation
accommodated for at least three months by a health board or in a care home
Qualifying care leavers who were at some point looked after by a local authority are the responsibility of that authority. The authority must maintain sufficient contact in order to decide what advice or assistance is needed. All other qualifying care leavers are the responsibility of the authority the young person asks for help.
Type of advice and assistance
Where nobody who has been looking after a qualifying care leaver under the age of 21 can do so, social services have a:
duty to 'advise and befriend' the young person if they were formerly looked after by them or accommodated by or on behalf of a voluntary organisation
power to advise and befriend where the care leaver was not formerly looked after by them or accommodated by or on behalf of a voluntary organisation (for example they were privately fostered)
power to provide assistance which, if the young person has exceptional circumstances, could include accommodation or cash, and could therefore provide rent in advance or a deposit on private rented housing
Help with employment, education or training
A local authority has a power to provide a qualifying care leaver (who was at some point looked after by them) with a:
contribution to the expenses incurred by living near wherever the care leaver is working, or looking for work – this assistance can continue until the care leaver reaches 21
grant towards the expenses connected with education or training, including university tuition fees, and a contribution to the expenses of living near the place of education or training – this assistance can continue until the care leaver reaches 25
A local authority has a duty to ensure there is vacation accommodation available for a qualifying care leaver who they formerly looked after who is in full time higher or further education. The duty ends when the care leaver reaches 25.
Conditions on assistance given under the Children Act 1989
Assistance (for example money or services but not the provision of assessments, pathway plans or personal advisers) provided to relevant and former relevant children, and to qualifying young people, may have repayment conditions attached. However, no repayments can be demanded when the care leaver is in receipt of income-related benefits.
Care leavers approaching a different authority
If an eligible, relevant or former relevant child approaches another authority, the second authority should provide short-term assistance under section 17 of the Children Act. The two authorities should then agree upon how the young person should continue to be assisted.
The responsibility remains with the last local authority to look after the young person. The young person's personal adviser will be the link co-ordinating support and resources.
Where there is a complaint, the young person and the local authority have two weeks in which to reach a satisfactory conclusion through an informal resolution stage. After this period, the complaints procedure under section 26 of the Children Act comes into effect.
The young person can complain, for example, if they feel that social services has not given them adequate preparation for leaving care, or adequate aftercare support.
The young person or their personal adviser can ask for a review of the pathway plan at any time. For example, if the young person is homeless, threatened with homelessness, or living in unsuitable accommodation, then a review could be requested.
Homelessness duties to care leavers
A homeless person aged 18,19 or 20 who was accommodated under section 20 is in priority need if they are not a 'relevant student'. This applies even if the young person was accommodated under section 20 for only 24 hours.
Last updated: 11 March 2021
Children Act 1989 as amended by Children Leaving Care Act 2000, Children and Young Persons Act 2008, Children and Families Act 2014 and Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571; s.2 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 3: Planning Transitions to Adulthood for Care Leavers ('Transitions Guidance'), DfE, 2010 (revised January 2015).
s.1 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
para 19B(2), Sch.2 Children Act 1989, as amended and reg 40, Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/959.
reg 40 and reg 48, Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/959.
reg 48(2), Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/959.
s.23A(2) Children Act 1989, as amended.
reg 3(5) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
reg 3(6) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
reg 3(2) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
reg 3(3) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
s.23C(1) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24 Children Act 1989 as amended.
R(H) v Wandsworth  EWHC 1082 (Admin); R(S) v Sutton LBC  EWCA Civ 790; R(G) v Southwark LBC  UKHL 26; R (on the application of KI) v Brent LBC  EWHC 1068 (Admin).
R (on the application of GE (Eritrea)) v (1) Secretary of State for the Home Department (2) Bedford BC  EWCA Civ 1490.
A v Enfield LBC  EWHC 567 (Admin).
s.23A(4) Children Act 1989, as amended.
para 19B(4) part 2 Sched. 2 Children Act 1989 as amended. See also The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations Volume 2: care planning, placement and case review and Volume 3: Planning transition to adulthood for care leavers, DfE, 2011.
s.23B(3)(a) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.23B(11) Children Act 1989, as amended.
s.23CA(3)(a) Children Act 1989, as amended.
s.23CZB Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.3 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
s.23CZB(5) Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.3 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
ss.23B(2) and (3) and ss.23CA(2) and (3) Children Act 1989 as amended; s.23CZB Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.3 Children and Social Work Act 2017; paras 19B and 19C, Sched.2 Children Act 1989 as amended.
reg 5(4)(c) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571, as inserted by reg 7 Care Planning and Care Leavers (Amendment) Regulations 2014 SI 2014/1917; reg 6(2)(b) Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
s.23E(1D) Children Act 1989 as amended; The Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations Volume 3: planning transition to adulthood for care leavers; regs 6 and 7 Care Leavers (England) Regulations 2010 SI 2010/2571.
R (on the application of C) v Lambeth LBC  EWHC 1230 (Admin); see also R (on the application of Elisa Nfuni) v Solihull MBC  EWHC 3155 (Admin).
ss.23C(6), 23C(7) and 23CZB(1) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.22B Children Act 1989.
para 4, sch 4, Universal Credit Regulations 2013 SI 2013/376, as amended by reg.3 and 4 Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018/1129; reg 2, Children (Leaving Care) Social Security Benefits Regulations 2001 SI2001/3074.
s.23B(8) Children Act 1989, as amended; reg 8 Universal Credit Regulations 2013 SI 2013/376; para 4, sch 4, Universal Credit Regulations 2013 SI 2013/376, as amended by reg.3 and 4 Universal Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2018/1129; reg 2, Children (Leaving Care) Social Security Benefits Regulations 2001 SI2001/3074.
See ch.8 Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 3: Planning Transition to Adulthood for Care Leavers, DfE, 2010.
s.23C(4) Children Act 1989 as amended.
R (on the application of Kebede) v Newcastle City Council  EWCA Civ 960.
ss23C(7) and (8) Children Act 1989.
R (on the application of Birara) v Hounslow LBC  EWHC 2113 (Admin).
ss.23CA(4) and (5) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.23CA(6) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.23B(8) Children Act 1989, as amended.
See para 7.12 Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 3: Planning Transition to Adulthood for Care Leavers, DfE, 2010.
s.23C(4) Children Act 1989, as amended; R (on the application of SO) v Barking and Dagenham LBC  EWCA Civ 1101; R (on the application of Sabiri) v Croydon LBC  EWHC 1236 (Admin).
ss.23C(6) and (7) Children Act 1989 as amended.
ss.23CA(4) to (6) and s.24B(2) Children Act 1989, as amended.
R (on the application of Elisa Nfuni) v Solihull MBC  EWHC 3155 (Admin).
s.24B(5) Children Act 1989, as amended.
s.23CZA Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.98 Children and Families Act 2014.
s.23CZB(7) Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.3 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
s.23CZB(6) Children Act 1989 as inserted by s.3 Children and Social Work Act 2017.
s.24(2) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24(4) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24(5) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24A Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24B Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24B(5) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.24B(3) Children Act 1989 as amended.
s.23B(12), s.23C(10), s.23CA(8), s.24A(6) and s.17(7) to s.17(9) Children Act 1989 as amended
s.17(9) Children Act 1989 as amended.
See ch.9 Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 3: Planning Transition to Adulthood for Care Leavers, DfE, 2010 (revised May 2014).