Unaccompanied Minors 5000 words MASTER’S LEVEL ESSAY



This case study is based on work I have undertaken with an unaccompanied minor using the systems theory. This case study will provide an overview of the aims and objectives of the case study and the way I aim to use the theory. The aim and objective of the case study is to complete an assessment of needs and conduct an intervention using a Personal Education Plan (PEP) with the minor, his foster carer and his college tutor and for the minor. I will explain and account for the theory I intend to apply, and the origins and place it has in social work traditions. This will briefly include how my learning from the reflective diary and peer / tutor feedback process has informed the choice of the theory. Legislation, policies and research will be applied to account for the case study.

I will use an ecomap  (sometimes known as socio-map) to graphically outline the various systems at play in Jorge’s life, this will be useful to explain how well or not so well Jorge interacts with the various systems affecting his life, including my context and the organisation’s context (see Hartman, 1995). The service user will be referred to as ‘Jorge’ throughout in order to protect his real identity in compliance with GSCC (2002) Code of professional conduct. Jorge is an asylum seeking minor from Angola who came to the UK in 2005, aged 12, in need of accommodation. The initial and core assessments were completed in order to establish needs. A foster placement was established although there had been a breakdown of two foster placements. Jorge has worked well with social work support since his arrival. He currently lives in an out of borough placement, which is now a cultural match for him, and he is progressing well with his education. The agency on the other hand is an ‘Unaccompanied Minor’ team in a London Borough, working with asylum seeking children from all over the world. The team provides social work services which include accommodation, financial support, educational support and child care support in compliance with the 1989 Children’s Act, the Immigration and Asylums Act 1999 and the Leaving Care Act 2000. I am a social work student within the team and have been assigned to Jorge whilst on placement at the borough. The nature of the referral is a statutory one. The eco map as described in appendix two demonstrated the stressful relationships Jorge had with school, social relationships and his foster care before the intervention (demonstrated by uneven lines), and the expected improved outcomes after the intervention (demonstrated by straight lines).

It will then be important for me to discuss and critically analyse my application of theory to practice, referring to relevant research, legislation, policy and guidance as it informs my approach. Children are considered to be unaccompanied if there is no adults responsible for them or if they are cared by someone who would not normally do so. Unaccompanied children would normally arrive in the country alone. The children are vulnerable since they have lost both their parents and their culture (Richman, 1998). In 2004, unaccompanied children accounted for 5% of looked after children (DfES, 2005).This proportion is likely to increase as local authorities are likely to take on more unaccompanied children.

Where a child is deemed to be in need, the Children’ Act 1989 provides powers to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child. It has a duty to provide accommodation if there is no one with parental responsibility for them; such person is known as a ‘looked after child’. Due consideration must be given with regards race, religion, cultural and linguistic backgrounds (s22 (5)). The person looking after the child should be an approved foster carer. Unaccompanied minors are seen as in need (Kilbane, 2001) where a child has no parents or guardian in this country, perhaps because he has arrived alone, seeking asylum, the presumption would be that he would fall within the scope of section 20 and become looked after, unless the needs assessment reveals particular factors which would suggest that an alternative response would be more appropriate. While the needs assessment is being carried out he should be cared for under section 20.

The Department of Health, Education and Employment, Home Office (2000) states that unaccompanied children’s well being or need for immediate services may be overlooked and subsequent planning and intervention may be less than satisfactory for them. Unaccompanied minors seeking asylum are described as those who, without the care and protection of their parents or legal guardian, and having experienced or witnessed traumatic events, may be suffering the most extreme form of loss. As a result of the Hillingdon Judgement (“R” on the application of Berhe and others v Hillingdon London Borough Council) local authorities’ social services departments could legally provide services including accommodation to unaccompanied children under section 17 of the Children’s Act. Free (2005) questions whether unaccompanied children should be treated as migrants who would make the Immigration Act apply, or as children in which the Children’s Act will apply. Guidance to the Children (Leaving Care Act 2000) states that unaccompanied minors are covered by the Children’s Act, but will still have an immigration status applying for asylum, acceptance as refugee or granted or not exceptional leave to remain (DH, 2001); thus,this will need to be taken into account by those providing services. However, Ravi et al (2007) criticised this as creating the same type of incompatibility that social workers have been struggling with.

I am using the systems theory as a social work tool in order to establish the difference and improvement a stable foster placement has provided for Jorge, and the effects this has had on other aspects of his life, such as his education. Pincus and Minahan (1973) look at three different types of systems (informal, formal and societal) and analyse the system which social workers use as part of their practice. One such system which is relevant to the case study is the client system. These are defined by Pincus and Minahan (1973 p145) as, “people, groups, families and communities who seek help and engage in working with the change agent system”. Jorge becomes the target system, and then the action systems are those who the change agent system (social workers, teachers and other professionals) works to achieve its aims. On the other hand, systems theories are criticised for assuming that everything fits into a social order, a fundamental social structure that establishes accepted relationships between peoples, groups and organisations in society (Payne, 2005). Social systems – “…..the social work profession utilises theories of human behaviour and social systems…intervening at the point where people interact with their environment….”  (BASW, 2002, P1). What does this definition mean to working with unaccompanied minors regarding systems theory?

In facilitating an assessment, social workers will draw on their knowledge of legal, theory, research and their own practice base. I will describe how I used the systems theory to inform my assessment. The assessment will therefore be based on how Jorge interacts with the various systems that affects his life such as foster family relationships, education, health and social services. Ravi et al (2007) states that three issues affect the unaccompanied minor. They are separated from their parents or customary caregiver, cut off from their country, and they are subject to immigration control. So a range of needs are likely to occur, as their past experience may lead to risk factors. It is for this reason that unaccompanied children become the responsibility of local authority social services. An ongoing process of assessment is important to build an in-depth understanding of the vulnerabilities and competencies of these children, in order to plan service responses around their needs.  Research has shown that needs assessments vary. Smale and Tuson (1993) identify three broad models of assessments the procedural, exchange and questioning. Milner and Byrne (2002) look at the procedural model, where the social worker fulfils agency requirements of gathering information to see whether the subject fulfils the criteria for receiving services. Then, the exchange model presumes that, “all people are experts in their own problem, with an emphasis on exchange of information. The social worker follows or tracks what others are saying rather than interpreting what they think is meant” (Ravi et al, 2007, p53).

The problem with this model will be the limited information that might be gathered from children, the fact that historical sources will not be available, and the unavailability of interpreters. So the initial encounters lay the foundation for exchange. This enables the development of trusting relationships where the child is given reassurance that they will be cared for. However, this did not occur in Jorge’s case as the initial encounters still proved difficult until the third foster placement. Asylum teams use the procedural model, which is just standard questioning and quite mechanical, so the eligibility screening process would not be very good, and there will be very few options, and less exchange (Ravi, et al, 2007). It is not possible to build a picture of a young person’s circumstances or experience at the point of initial referral: the passing of time is important. Knowledge of child development and observations in different contexts such as at school will be important (DH, 2000a). Initial assessment of need is seen as a brief assessment of each child referred to social services with a request for services to be provided which should determine whether the child is in need, the nature of any service required, and whether  a further more detailed core assessment should be undertaken (Wade et al, 2005).

The emotional well being and mental health of refugee and asylum seeking children and young people has received increasing attention recent years. Research has arguably concentrated more on mental health rather than emotional well being (Chase et al, 2008). The mental health difficulties or disorders most frequently identified among refugee children include difficult behaviour such as aggression (Hodes, 2002). Other stress factors in the lives of refugee children include uncertainty about the future, frequent moves, disruption of social networks, language and cultural barriers (Vostanis, 2004) Melzak and Avigad, (2005) also support the need to promote more psycho social well being of refugee children. Jorge would have been affected by any of these factors which may have affected his initial placement and would be in need of therapeutic support around his behaviour but the focus of this case study will be around assessment of his needs for a stable home relationship and education. The method of assessment suitable for this case study in relation to systems theory is Circular Questioning (CQ) as espoused by Bateson (Dallos and Draper, 2005). This is “the capacity of the therapist to conduct his investigation on the basis of feedback from the family in response to information solicited from relationships. Circularity is a bridge connecting systematic hypothesising and neutrality by means of the therapist’s activity” (Tomm, 1985).

It is now imperative to discuss the hypothesis of needs for Jorge. A key notion is the principle of feedback: how information can be looped back into the system in order to enable control in the form of adjustments to be made. A system is able to maintain its stability by self regulation and using its information about past performance. This explains causation which is seen as a circular process taking place over time (Dallos and Draper, 2005). In Jorge’s case, two placements had previously broken down, and the effects included social and educational disruptions, as seen in the first part of the eco-map. The principles of feedback in this case will outline the causes of the breakdown in order to remedy the situation and loop information back into the system. However, it is possible that interventive circular questioning violates the principles of neutrality which is essential to systemic family therapy. Neutrality is operationalised as the client’s perceptions of the side taking and feeling discomfort. Systemic therapists attempt to understand the system and facilitate therapeutic change. To achieve this, descriptive and reflexive circular questioning (CQ) are used.  The former is used to get information to understand how the problem is systematically connected, while the latter is used to make a change in that particular system. Using CQ also offers further possibilities for transformation more than simply using opinions and instructions. Family therapy has three methods, circularity, neutrality and hypothesising. Questions are asked in such a way that the family can make new connections, and think in new ways about certain events and acts by shifting from first person actor to third person observer. Neutrality stops the therapist from being forced into the family’s system. With CQ systemic therapists should only intervene by joining the family’s system of knowledge in order to change the very issue that brought the family to therapy. Hypothesising is used to guide the family to make connections among stories told by family members and the actions associated with the stories. The therapist then creates a flurry of hypotheses with different patterns of connections. In this manner, I was able to ascertain Jorge’s needs by asking him “what improvements will you like to see in your foster care?” rather than asking him why you do not like the foster placement.

The hypotheses of needs which I extracted from the reflective diary included:

  • Safety needs – Jorge did not adhere to boundaries which compromised his safety as he was in danger of getting in trouble by mixing with gangs. There is a need for a safe environment. I achieved this by asking Jorge “would you like to move to a more acceptable and adequate placement”?
  • Danger of social isolation (exclusion) – Jorge was excluded from school and did not comply with school rules, which could make him drop out of school all together, apart from this difficulty. Also, difficulties in being placed in a more suitable foster home. There was a need to be placed in a more suitable environment. The question asked was, “what are the things you like about school, friendship and family life”?
  • Need for stable home environment – which will promote emotional and physical well being, keep Jorge out of trouble and enable him focus on other activities such as his education. The question asked was, “what type of home would you like to live in and what kind of people would you hope to live with”? This facilitated the cultural match relevant for Jorge.
  • Educational needs – This have been affected by past truancy, unhappiness with initial placements, lack of focus, and problems with teachers at school. Need to provide a more stable home environment and work in partnership with the education services and a new foster carer. The question I asked Jorge was, “what would you like to gain from school, and how will you like your teacher to relate with you?”

I will describe my intervention and how it developed over time. As I aim to use PEP I will describe how this will engage Jorge more effectively with his college work and future development and career.  Responsibility for helping young people plan their education lies with social workers. In accordance with the completed assessment, Jorge was placed with his third foster carer who is now out of borough, and had taken in his feelings as a result of the circular questioning. Berridge (1997) and Sinclair (2001) said children’s views and experiences are good indicators of a successful placement. The research said that the children wanted to feel valued, encouraged and cared in the same way as others in the foster care. There should be choice and options in meeting carers before they are placed. Jorge was now in a placement which made him happy, comfortable and safe – as outlined by Kilbane (2001) and Stanley (2001), who said it was important for children to live somewhere that provided safety, where their experiences will be recognised, and somewhere that is suitable in terms of language, culture and religion. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, 1994), regarding the protection and care of refugee children, stresses the importance of continuous, loving and nurturing care. So children should be placed in the context of the family and the community. They said every effort must be made to place children in foster families or groups of similar, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious background. Ethnically matched placements are less likely to break down. Jorge’s foster carer is also from Angola, and they were both happy with the placement.

Ravi et al (2007) stated that the disadvantage of foster care is that the children felt that they were different because they were fostered, and there was confusion about family relationships, the need to behave better and to achieve more than other children in the family in order to gain acceptance (Tolfree, 2004). Jorge’s initial foster placement showed signs of this confusion. Social workers and foster parents are often well placed to provide emotional support in a non stigmatised way. In this manner, my intervention with Jorge now included the foster parent, in developing the next important area with Jorge, which is around his education.

There have been many explanations for the low academic attainment of looked after children. These include previously disrupted and unstable educational placement, the low expectations of teachers for these children as well as low priority given by social workers and carers to the education of the children (Jackson 1987, p.335). A key issue has been the reluctance of professional’s especially social workers to share information and consult with other agencies. Lack of communication often led to uncertainty for children especially when an impending move of placement is planned.

Martin and Jackson (2002) sought the views of young people who had experience of being in care and who were high achievers. They emphasised that social workers and other professionals need to communicate more and involve them in the decision making and planning of their care (Martin and Jackson 2002, p 125).

Every child and young person in public care needs a Personal Education Plan which is to ensure services and support; contribute to stability, minimise disruption and broken schooling; signal particular and special needs and establish clear goals and act as a record of progress and achievement (DfEE/DOH, 2000) These procedures, however, also arguably fail to have the desired effect and the Social Exclusion Unit’s 2003 report was one of the harbingers of the 2004 Children Act (Social Exclusion Unit Report, 2003). The 2004 Children Act declared that looked after children had a right to expect the outcomes we would want for every child and demanded the strongest commitment to achieve the highest educational standards for these children, including supporting their aspirations to gain access to higher education.  From the implementation of the 2004 Children Act, a local authority as the corporate parent of the children it looks after has a duty to promote their educational achievement. This required an ongoing co-operative and joint approach by all local services and schools who play a significant role in improving the educational experiences of these children.

Hayden (2005) found that though social services staff and teachers feel that the PEP has raised the profile of the educational needs of children, the planning of PEPs proved difficult, and that social workers found it difficult to ensure that all looked after children had a PEP and there was the danger of it being just a paper exercise. Planning for children is an important social work task, although it is common to find evidence that there are major gaps in plans in social work departments which reminds us of the complexity of care planning in social work and how much of an impact this has on the PEP (Hayden 2005).

As a result of this dilemma of social work planning, DfEE/DOH (2000) guidance attempted to set realistically clear guidelines in implementing the PEP, by outlining specific issues that need to be addressed in the PEP, the people who need to be involved and how often it should be reviewed. Ultimately such problems in planning should not arise; however, in practice, this is not always the case, though when the PEPs are initiated progression is quite clear. Hayden’s findings demonstrates that if social workers, the professionals, the child, parents and other agencies are involved in the PEP assessment process, the child’s level of achievement would improve significantly. Furthermore, the OFSTED (2001) report also identifies that the PEP can be most effective if other areas of the child’s life are stable: such as stable placements, continuity of care, stable school placements and appropriate educational resources for looked after children, all of which play an important factor in educational attainment. A joint PEP was then established between myself, the foster carer and the teacher (see Appendix one). I have highlighted the main issues as:

Need to prioritise academic workload – what Jorge needs to concentrate on the business studies course.

Need to manage time more effectively – Jorge takes time sorting himself out in the mornings.

Need to go to bed on time and wake up on time in order not to be late for classes and appointments. How would Jorge accept this as a priority?

Need to explain the importance of his future career and disciplines, therefore explaining to him the need to take advice from people who can help him achieve his life objectives (teacher, social worker and foster parent).

Production of PEP and who to involve – social worker, teacher. Jorge and foster parent to be involved (see appendix one).

I also used a technique called ASPIRE (Assessment Solutions Promoting Instruction, Reflection and Evidence). It is designed to support a student’s formative and summative assessments. Formative assessment will help support the student during the learning process to help ensure learning and close the achievement gap, whereas summative assessment evaluates the student’s learning after the teaching process is complete. This helps to target students in need of intervention (Whitman, 2010). Jorge agreed that he will need to meet the objectives set out in the PEP as it will support his own educational and future career development.

In conclusion, this case study detailed work I have undertaken with an unaccompanied minor, Jorge, using the systems theory. The aim and objective of the case study was to complete an assessment of needs using the systems theory through circular questioning. This provides the framework for my intervention to support Jorge maintain a stable home life, to develop positive relationships with important people in his life, such as his foster carer, and to improve his education. I therefore used the PEP to plan how best to meet Jorge’s educational needs involving the college tutor and foster carer to achieve the best outcome for Jorge where all parties, including the client, have a say. In evaluating these outcomes, Jorge now understood how his past behaviour impacted negatively on his life. Jorge was able to personally reflect that he was actually fortunate to be placed with foster carers and his relationship with his carer. He now understood how his behaviour can have implications for other aspects of his life such as his education and then his career.

My learning so far has included using the eco map to build a picture of the client’s current state, and what changes are required to improve the person’s circumstance. I have read policies and legislation, and reviewed the literature on unaccompanied minors which has deepened my knowledge and understanding of Jorge’s general circumstance and how the asylum team operates. The ethical issue I considered as stated in the reflective diary was approaching Jorge in a sensitive and considered manner. The tutorial feedback has helped me to focus on how I develop my assessment framework from the literature review using the CQ technique to ask the right questions necessary for a positive home life, encourage Jorge to participate constructively in his new college, and at the same time reduce concerns from the foster carer. This changed over time to accommodate further educational needs that required PEP.

In future, I will assess new government initiatives to boost the PEP system such as Improving the Educational Attainment of Children in Care (Looked After Children) (DCSF, 2009), which asks that the social worker work closely with not just the designated teacher but also with a Virtual School Head (VSH), who is a specialist. The VSH is a new support system being put in place to work with social work teams to monitor the overall performance of looked after children in each local authority. Necessarily, however, the PEP system remains a work in progress. There is optimism that it can be a useful tool in ensuring improved educational achievement for looked after children, and it reinforces the importance of planning and multi-agency working to change the lives of these children. The government’s political investment in the PEP has ensured education stays high on the agenda for all involved in the care of the child.  The planning and its implementation required for an individual PEP as well as the entire PEP system to be effective will only be achieved by having clear objectives and procedures which everyone involves understands and are committed to. There is concern too that, in focusing on an ever more sophisticated system of recording, the fundamental function of educational and social workers to make   strong relationships with  with their students/clients will be lost (Jones, 2001).

I have found that good assessments are often the foundations of good planning and the collation of information. Partnership in multi-agency planning and in work with looked after children has often been lacking in the past, and has accentuated the gap between the educational achievements of looked after children and other children in the wider community.
Systems theories do not explain why things happen and why any connections actually exists, which, from a scientific perspective, make them hard to be tested empirically. However, I found that using this theory best explains the client’s circumstance and how to implement positive change in the life of the individual.


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Appendix One: Personal Education Plan










Support needsWhy this is neededHow this will be metWho will provide supportWhen this will be completed
Manage time more effectivelyTo support Jorge to get to school and meetings on timeRegular informal meetings / discussions with foster parent to focus Jorge on how he can organise daily routine more efficientlyFoster carer and JorgeOn a weekly basis and then as and when required
Educational attainment goalTo reduce educational gap of children in needBuilding positive relationships with teachers and utilisingTeacher and JorgeOngoing
Completion of diploma in business studiesTo enable Jorge to start building a careerTo use learning resources at Jorge’s disposal at collegeTeacher and JorgeJUNE 2010
Use of ASPIRE techniquesTo assess Jorge’s progress at collegeCoordinate meetings and discussions with Jorge about academic progress and other requirementsSocial workerJUNE 2010















Before intervention











After intervention












Key: A= Foster care, B= social services, C= social/friendship relationships, D= Education

Straight lines = good relationships and Curved lines = stressful relationships