“We are human too”
: Social work and social care practitioners working with unaccompanied young people leaving care in England: navigating practical and ethical challenges.

  • Deborah Claire Hadwin

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    When unaccompanied young people arrive in the UK alone and seek asylum, local authority Children’s Services are responsible for their care and support, and they have the same rights and entitlements as any other child in the care of the local authority. It is as these children approach adulthood that for those whose immigration status is precarious, their imagined futures can be obscured, the pathway to resettlement can begin to unravel and their wellbeing is compromised. Precarious immigration status can seriously restrict access to opportunities and services, including potentially ending leaving care support, setting them apart from other care leavers who can now access social care support until age 25. Contextualised within policies of the ‘hostile environment’ and austerity, it is at this interface of applying Children’s and Immigration legislation that social workers have been accused of implementing racist and exclusionary policies in being de-facto border guards. As a profession based on a strong commitment to human rights and social justice, seeking to promote and enhance wellbeing, considerable tensions can arise.

    Through undertaking a combination of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with young people, voluntary sector representatives, and social care practitioners, this qualitative study uses Harding’s (1986) Standpoint Theory to understand and foreground how the most marginalised within the system, the young people, experience and make sense of their transition to adulthood particularly when their immigration status is compromised. It then considers how those in more powerful social positions, the different social care professionals involved: social work managers, social workers and personal advisors identify and navigate the issues and tensions which arise, practically and ethically.

    The findings of thesis offer critical insights into how practitioners, primarily responsible for the young people’s welfare, engage with their asylum narratives and issues of credibility. It identifies how practitioners navigate the uncertainty both in relation to the precarity linked to the young people’s immigration status, but also the ethical stress that invokes and how this is experienced by them. It then identifies how practising within the context of both the ‘hostile environment’ and austerity has framed the way in which young people are viewed by practitioners within the local authority system. The thesis then offers an original practice tool derived from the young people’s standpoint, The OPTIONS model, which captures the attributes local authority practitioners need to demonstrate to work most effectively with unaccompanied young people at this transition stage of their lives. Familiarity with the attributes and use of the model within practice, could change the way that they experience these structures and systems. There is not a stark binary between implementing border control contrary to social work values or resisting them in line with social work values, rather the situation is much more nuanced.
    Date of Award5 Aug 2022
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Coventry University
    SupervisorGurnam Singh (Supervisor), Stephen Cowden (Supervisor) & Heaven Crawley (Supervisor)


    • asylum
    • Children’s Services
    • local authority
    • austerity
    • care
    • social justice
    • human rights
    • social care practitioners
    • social work

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