Leaving care is hard enough without the system favouring those who are fostered

Overlooked – twice. Sad by Shutterstock

Until a new duty on local authorities in England came into force last year, if you were in foster care you had to move on when you reached 18. This has now changed. Under the Children and Families Act (2014) local authorities now have to “facilitate, monitor and support ‘staying put’ arrangements for fostered young people until they reach the age of 21”.

This is very good news – a coalition policy aiming to ease the difficult transition many young people face from care to independence. It means that care leavers are no longer made to leave their foster placements just because they have turned 18.

The Office for National Statistics reported that the age at which young people leave home has shifted in recent years. The average age of young people leaving home is now 25 and the number of 20 to 34-year-olds living at home has gone up by 24%. So even with “staying put” until the age of 21, fostered young people are still leaving home earlier than their non-fostered peers. But this age extension does buy more time for foster carers and social workers to best support care leavers as they move into adulthood. It also allows individuals to do things we all begin to do at this age – get a job, consider university, all with a continuation of support and shelter.

Reports that highlight the outcomes of care leavers show just how vulnerable this group is during the transition to independence and how much support they need. Studies have found that around 24% of the adult prison population has been in care and up to a third of homeless young people were care leavers.

Much of the information we collect, however, is focused on the short number of years immediately following the move from care and often neglects to include any longer-term prospects: positive portrayals of people who have left care and turned their lives around. Zachari Duncalf, a care leaver and academic, found in her PhD research that although some care leavers experienced negative outcomes shortly after leaving care, many had positive outcomes later in life. She found, for example, that a significant number returned to further education later in their lives.

Not all care leaving stories end badly. Interview by Shutterstock

Of course separation from your birth family in your formative years has a life-long impact on a person. But Duncalf’s research shows that if a person can survive the transition from care to adulthood, the checklist of negative outcomes need not be forever. Perhaps, with the increased support of staying put the likelihood of care leavers having these negative experiences could be minimised and might be avoided altogether.

But not for you

Staying put is therefore, a good start, a principle just about everyone would agree with and it is a reason to be optimistic – support for care leavers is being improved. However, Craig Whittaker, Conservative MP for the Calder Valley, recently described the “discrimination and unfairness” that exists for the system as a whole, and which also exists between different groups of young people in public care.

Of the 70,000 in care, nearly 9% live in residential settings and currently the staying-put policy does not apply to them.

This is concerning, as young people in residential care are potentially more vulnerable and often have more complex needs than those living in foster care. For example, a recent report found that 38% of young people in residential care had special educational needs and 62% had clinically significant mental health difficulties. Young people in residential care are also likely to have experienced a number of placements, nearly a third (31%) of them have had six or more placements, three times as many placements as those in foster care.

The campaign group, Every Child Leaving Care Matters is working hard to highlight the omission of young people in residential care from these staying put arrangements. The core group of campaigners at ECLM are impassioned and informed by their own personal experiences of growing up in the care system.

After hearing evidence from the group and a wide range of parties, the parliamentary education select committee made a recommendation that staying put should be extended to those living in residential care to if they wished to stay.

A scoping report requested by the government following the committee recommendation was recently published. Unsurprisingly, it recommended that those in residential care should be allowed to stay put. A range of options including a “staying close” scheme where a young person moves to supported lodgings close to their residential home were also suggested.

The recommendations of the committee and the report are clear for government: young people in residential care also need support and to be able to choose how they will make their transition from the care of the state.

Staying put is potentially a landmark policy for care leavers and a welcome step in a positive direction, but residential care leavers being left out needs to be addressed now. The Centre for Social Justice said it had become “indefensible to delay the extension of similar arrangements to as many young people in residential care any longer than necessary”. With 10,000 young people leaving care each year the need to do this is pressing.