The majority of the people we work with have had a final, negative decision on their asylum claim, and as a result are either currently, or are at risk of, experiencing poverty, destitution and homelessness.
Many of our clients are unable to meet their essential needs for shelter, food and clothing. Living so precariously compounds with previous trauma and impacts upon their physical and mental wellbeing. Their circumstances mean they are at increased risk of exploitation, and the ongoing threat of detention and deportation hangs over them.
Our focus is on developing our service so that we can increase our capacity to provide the correct advice, information and advocacy to our service users in a timely fashion. To do this we have restructured our Casework Model to introduce three levels of Casework; non complex, complex and OISC Level 2 immigration advice. The three tiers make best use of our team’s capacity, and help to manage the demand for our services by filtering and responding to advice needs, whilst honing specialist skills. The Casework Team works in partnership with a specialist legal project to recruit, train and support a team of four Advice Volunteers. Each client has a named Caseworker and moves between the three levels of advice as needed and under supervision of their Caseworker.
The Senior Caseworker chairs weekly case conferences with the Casework Delivery team and the Mental Health Assessment Worker. The Case Conference is an opportunity for the whole team to review the week’s new cases and ensure all new clients have been met by the Mental Health Team. They also discuss cases where there is a concern around safeguarding, mental health, health, housing or support and agree a collaborative course of action.
Through the development of our new advice model we aim to reduce numbers of asylum seekers who suffer hardship due to problems with their asylum support whilst simultaneously increasing our capacity to provide in-depth casework with the aim of assisting refused asylum seekers to exit destitution.
Clients understand more - both about their legal situations, and how to take steps to regularise their status in the UK. They are more likely to access Legal Aid funding and are supported to make applications to the Home Office. As a result, they are able to find sustainable routes out of poverty and destitution.
The Mental Health Team’s dedicated provision, embedded alongside casework, prevents crisis and escalating mental health issues. The team conducts assessments with all new clients, building trusting relationships, providing regular check-in’s and supporting people to access support appropriate to their needs.
The team have helped to develop stronger referral pathways and increase successful referrals into voluntary sector therapeutic services and statutory mental health services. Their skills and expertise also help to de-escalate mental health crisis situations at the drop-in, finding appropriate ongoing support for people and preventing police involvement.
One female client first approached us for destitution support, having overstayed her visa and been in the UK unlawfully for around 2 years. She was pregnant and in a relationship with a British Citizen. Our Destitution Caseworker identified that the relationship potentially involved domestic violence.
We worked with the client over a number of months, including after the birth of her child - a British Citizen - to ensure that she was supported to make a claim for asylum. This was after conversations revealed a history of exploitation in the UK that highlighted her potential vulnerability to future exploitation and subjective fear of return to her country of origin. The trust developed in her Destitution Caseworker helped make her more receptive to the advice provided by the Senior Caseworker.
The Senior Caseworker provided her with advice on claiming asylum and the Refugee Convention and making an application under Article 8 of the ECHR, on the basis of her daughter's rights. Our client then contacted the Home Office to lodge a claim. As Legal Aid lawyers are not able (or not willing) to open legal help matters where an asylum claim has not already been lodged, getting this advice prior to a claim would have otherwise been difficult.
Volunteers enable caseworkers to focus on complex cases
Advice Volunteers with extra time and energy to work through non-complex advice needs under minimum supervision means caseworkers have reported feeling more in control in the drop-in, as they have both the skills and energy to focus on the complex cases.
The Mental Health Team’s work is crucial
Working with destitute individuals is emotionally taxing. Specialisms and expertise across the organisation help the staff team to feel confident and supported. The integrated mental health support, in particular, means the destitution caseworkers can concentrate more on clients’ practical needs, and the Mental Health Team can support clients’ emotional health and wellbeing.
Clear forums for support enable safe and effective working
As well as the weekly case conference, the Caseworkers, Mental Health workers and the Young Person’s Development Workers also participate in a monthly Reflective Practice Group. This is externally facilitated by a trauma therapist. These forums are part of our quality assurance processes but also support the team to work through challenges and provide a consistent and safe service for all of our service-users.
We trained volunteers with language skills to carry out peer interviews which led to richer feedback about people’s experience of destitution and our services than we’d previously gathered. The findings were one of the main drivers for the restructure of the Casework team which led to our Early Action model. We have continued to work closely with the service-user group to define the role of a new Advice Volunteer and encouraged applications from our existing volunteer team, including those with lived experience.
Another of the prime drivers behind our desire to develop a new model for the casework service was increased demand for non-complex advice, advocacy and support interventions, particularly from new arrivals/recently dispersed asylum seekers. Our assumption was that some of this increase was driven by the transition to a telephone-only advice service provided by Migrant Help presenting a number of barriers to accessing adequate support for our client group as well as the inadequacy of the accountability mechanisms for the Home Office accommodation provider. The development of a new Advice Volunteer role and procedures for organising the support required by new arrivals was undertaken specifically to increase our capacity and effectiveness at responding to these types of inquiry.
Our Early Action case work model represents a fundamental change to the delivery of our advice and support services. By creating a second tier of management we have provided greater support to the delivery team and increased capacity for the Development of PAFRAS. The Caseworkers have also become supervisors in taking on the line management role of the Advice Volunteers and the shift in supporting others to deliver advice from trying to meet all of the client’s needs themselves has been a big one. We have learnt a tremendous amount about our capacity and the importance of drawing on the different elements of our model to realise its full potential.
Making significant changes to the roles and our established model was challenging and needed time and flexibility to embed. Increased capacity through the development of the Advice Volunteer roles has been realised at points, but this can also be threatened as capable volunteers are prone to move onto other opportunities, so a cycle of new recruitment and training needs to be continually sustained.
In addition to adapting our established delivery methods in light of Covid-19, the pandemic is also having a significant effect on our Early Action Casework Model. There are severe gaps in the provision of legal aid advice and representation. This means that people who may have a legal route out of destitution are unable to access the support they need in a timely manner. Similarly, the pandemic has affected the operating of accommodation projects available to our destitute clients such as hosting schemes and night shelters. Without statutory commitments to accommodate all homeless people, regardless of status, we are faced with a growing caseload of homeless people at even more risk during global pandemic.
Right now we’d really like the opportunity to get the volunteer-supported/non-complex advice part of our model properly bedded in. This aspect of the model has been completely disrupted by the pandemic.
Looking beyond that, and with the right resources, we would want to employ a Volunteer Advice Co-ordinator to train, supervise and support the advice volunteers and enable the destitution caseworkers to concentrate all of their efforts on the most complex cases.