Why leaving care at 21 is a good idea…

When I was 16 I left school and started work. But no way was I ready to live independently.

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Sergei Kleshnev (adapted)

Photo courtesy of ©123rf/Sergei Kleshnev (adapted)

So why do we insist that kids in care do this?

Here’s the problem and a solution…

My parents looked after me well. Very well. In fact my whole childhood was pretty trouble free.

But for many children this isn’t the case and the Local Authority has to step in.

At the end of March 2014 there were almost 94,000 children in public care in the U.K. The breakdown is as follows:

  • 68,820 children in England
  • 15,580 in Scotland
  • 5,756 in Wales, and
  • 2,858 in Northern Ireland

For these kids clearly things didn’t go so well at home!

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Why care leavers need to be cared for for longer…

According to the DfES care leavers face some particular challenges that most young people don’t:

  • They are 3 times more likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence – with all the problems this brings for employment, tenancies, etc.
  • They are 4 times more likely to have a mental health disorder – showing the clear need for ongoing support
  • The are 5 times less likely to achieve 5 good GCSEs and 8 times less likely to go to university
  • And, most scary of all – 1 in every 5 homeless people is a care leaver

So why does our care system so often insist that young people in care become independent at 16 or 18?

Before you all shout at me, I realise that many young people want to leave at 16. They vote with their feet. Others feel they should leave, and do the same.

But does that mean it’s right? Does that mean it’s the best option? In my view, most of the time, for most kids, clearly not!

In England, the governments’ “staying put” arrangements mean that young people can continue to receive support to remain in foster care until 21. This is a good start. Money well spent.

But there’s further to go. For example, kids still have to leave residential care when they turn 18.

The Scottish changes…  Come on the rest!

The recent changes enacted in Scotland, as part of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, really raises the bar on leaving care and sets new standard for the other home nations to aspire to.

The two main changes are:

  • Allowing all young people in care the option to stay on until they reach the age of 21 – essentially meaning that they don’t have to “leave home” just because they turned 16 or 18.
  • Extending the availability of “aftercare support” up to the age of 26 – so even if they do leave their placement, they can draw on help for longer, should they need it.

Essentially, the changes mean the availability of five more years of care is offered to kids whose start in life has been problematic.

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The options…

A report published in January looked at a number of options for allowing young people to remain in their residential placement after they turn 18. Here they are:

  • Option One: Care leavers live in the same children’s home that they were living in when they were in care. They can stay there until they are 21.
  • Option Two: Care leavers live in a separate building but in the same grounds as the children’s home that they were living in when they were in care. They can stay there until they are 21.
  • Option Three: This option is like supported lodgings. Care leavers live in a different house to where they were living when they were in their children’s home. Young people have to be 16-years-old or older to live here and will have to move from where they are living if they want to stay put until they are 21. Not everyone who lives there might be from care.
  • Option Four: Care leavers ‘stay close’. They live independently in their own flat. It’s down the road, or very close to the children’s home they were living in when they left care. They have a key worker from their children’s home who they know really well to help them with support. They can visit their children’s home if they want – for example visiting for tea.

(From the “Staying Put” scoping study report, 2014:2)

Surely what Scotland can do, the rest can do too? The work has been done to scope the costs and they are far from prohibitive – just £76m a year to extend staying put in residential care till age 21.

Final word…

People who work in the LAC system are some of the most admirable people I’ve ever met. The effort and sacrifice that foster, kinship and residential carers put into looking after children is inspirational.

Wouldn’t it be great if all LAC kids could enjoy it for a few years more – if they want to?

If I needed my parents post-18, surely kids in care do too?…

What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts about leaving care…
  • What impacts on kids have you seen when they leave care at 16 or 18? Leave a comment below or click here.

More info?…

  • Barnardo’s – research into the costs of care leavers (England) and recommendations for doing it better…

Related previous posts:

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

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  • Kirk Hawksworth

    Funding is the key. Most foster carers I work with often struggle to support looked after children after they turn 18 when
    the fostering money finishes. If the same, or similar level of funding could continue then we would see many more foster placements carry on for children post 18. Supported Lodgings pays maybe half of what a foster carer would normally expect through fostering. Foster carers are then faced with a difficult decision – to carry on looking after a young person but struggle financially, or look to move that young person on to enable the carer to continue fostering. Fund Post 18 placements properly and this decision no longer exists!

    • jonnymatthew

      Totally agree, Kirk. It comes down to dosh in the end. I guess if there were an “in principle” commitment to extending the LAC life-course, as it were, then the funding would follow – though I suspect it would take a legislative change to make this happen… Cheers, J.