Coram, a legal children’s centre specialising in adoption and fostering services, has warned that thousands of children risk being left undocumented when the UK leaves the European Union because they are unaware of the EU settlement scheme or find it too complicated.
The government has launched an online settlement application which all EU nationals must complete in order to remain in the UK and be able to work, access healthcare and education.
But Coram’s childcare lawyer, Alexandra Conroy-Harris, told Sky News that many children in the care system will struggle to provide the evidence they need to remain in the UK.
She said: “To get status they would have to prove they were from an EU country, if they don’t have the paperwork then they can’t, or if they were born in this country they will have to prove that their parents were from an EU country.
“Again, if a child has been taken into care often we don’t know what has happened to their parents. A child would get to age 18 and come out of foster care without much of the paperwork they would need and we can’t tell them what will happen to them.
“There is just a huge gap that these children are going to fall through.”
To solve this issue, Mrs. Conroy-Harris said the children should be granted British citizenship.
She said: “If there could be a particular programme to allow children in long-term foster care to have access to British citizenship without having to make a separate application, just an automatic right to have their birth registered, to have a British passport, to have citizenship.
“It wouldn’t be a dramatic number but it would make an enormous difference for a child in care to say ‘yes I can stay here when I am 18’.”
It is currently free for EU nationals to apply to the settlement scheme, but the process to apply for British citizenship can cost more than £1,000 per child.
The Local Government Association has warned that the final cost may be a lot higher.
Deputy chairman of the LGA, David Simmonds, said: “It’s well over £1,000 just for the application of a child who is looking to register and in those situations which are complicated, when age is disputed or there’s an immigration issue, the legal bills can run into tens of thousands of pounds per individual.
“Children in care should be treated favourably by the system. We shouldn’t see local authority tax payers picking up huge bills for taking children through that application system.
“The system itself should be slick, simple and inexpensive and provide the individual with a piece of evidence that shows their status.
“So should they find themselves in a Windrush type situation where their status is questioned 20/30/40 years in the future, they will have the evidence to prove their legal status in this country.”
There are currently 75,000 children living in care in England, but there is no information on how many will need to make applications under the EU settlement scheme.
It has not been a legal obligation for local authorities to record the nationality of children in foster care.
The Home Office has estimated there are approximately 5,000 EU children in care in the UK, but the real number is not known.
Kelly Newton, from Lewisham in south London, has been a foster carer for 14 years, looking after a total of 28 children.
For the last five years she has been looking after 13-year-old twin girls from Denmark after they were removed from their birth parents.
She said: “It was only when I went to renew the girls’ passports when I realised we needed to apply for EU settlement to ensure they could remain in the UK when they turn 18.
“There was so much information, pages of documents, I didn’t know where to start. It was a big worry for us.”
Ms. Newton had to travel to Scotland with the girls to complete the applications with the help of children’s charity, Coram.
“We needed a letter from the school, one from social services, their passports and a letter from us. It took two hours to fill out the forms and was really stressful,” she said.
“We were lucky to be able to go through channels and find someone who would help. There are lots of children out there that when they reach 18, who knows what will happen to them.”
She added: “There is not enough attention on the human side of Brexit. The politicians are wrapped up in trade and business, and as a foster carer, I think it’s so important these children are looked after and it’s not being highlighted enough.”
Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes said: “It is a priority of mine to ensure that the EU Settlement Scheme is accessible for everyone, including children in care.
“This is why we are providing grant funding of up to £9m for voluntary and community organisations across the UK to support EU citizens who might need additional help when applying to the scheme.
“We are also working closely with local authorities and other stakeholders in the UK to ensure that applications to the EU Settlement Scheme are made on behalf of all looked after children who are EU citizens.”
Author: Charlotte Lomas