Recent research on what support care leavers want or expect from
social services departments challenges some of the perceptions
social workers have about young people, writes Stewart Russell.
Care leavers have long been over-represented among homeless
people, substance misusers, prisoners, pregnant teenagers,
unemployed people and people with mental health problems.
The government’s guidance Me, Survive, Out
There?,1 published in July 1999, sought to address
these outcomes by strengthening the provisions in the Children Act
I conducted research2 focused on the guidance’s main
mechanisms underpinning the proposed new arrangements
-Êpathway plans, financial support and young persons’
advisers. It was carried out in Portsmouth between November 1999
and February 2000 and questionnaires were sent to young people aged
13-19 who were still, or had very recently been, looked after by
Portsmouth social services in either residential, foster or
They were also given to carers, and to the social work teams in
the Portsmouth’s children and families department. There were 70
replies, 30 from young people, 23 from social workers, and 17 from
carers. Some of the responses shook a few preconceptions.
More than a third of the young people were happy to have a
three-monthly review of their pathway plan. A significant number
requested a review of their plan either “on demand” or when they
moved house, employment or education. If agreement was not reached
about the pathway plan nearly half the young people were happy with
another social worker from Portsmouth being an independent
reviewer,Êalthough a former care leaver was everyone’s
favoured option in that role.
These replies contradicted assumptions that young people do not
trust social services, and that they do not like formal
Another major misconception was that young people would be
resentful of too much control of their finances by social services.
Only one-third of the young people asked for full control of their
money, with five wanting the department to take full control, and
eight thinking that their social worker knew best about money! The
feeling was that young people should be financially rewarded for
achieving goals, but not penalised if they failed to do so.
Differences emerged about what types of accommodation might be
appropriate. The young people were very reluctant to live in either
children’s homes or a hostel. Their preferred options were: “a flat
of my own” (no big surprise there!); with friends; in supportive
lodgings; or some sort of self-contained unit with support.
Although social workers were prepared to be eclectic in their
choices, the carers favoured more traditional move-on
In choosing who might be a good young person’s adviser, the
young people preferred the “devil you know” -Êsocial workers,
carers, key workers and former care leavers. The adults chose
specialist care leaver workers, mentors and independent advocates.
There was also very strong support from all parties for a
two-worker approach, with a social services employee being
allocated, and a second support worker being chosen by the young
Most of the staff and young people think advisers should be
available until the young person is 21. Most care leavers wanted
more contact than set out in Me, Survive, Out There?
Under-18s wanted phone contact every week, and to meet every third
week; over-18s phone contact every fortnight and meeting every six
weeks. If social services departments complied, Quality Protects
performance indicators would be exceeded.
The young people had clear ideas about what their adviser should
be like. Ideally working with no more than two young people each,
the adviser should be part of social services. While most of them
were indifferent to the ethnicity or culture of their adviser, none
of the girls asked for a male adviser. What they really wanted from
their adviser was the ability to form a good relationship with
“stickability”, good knowledge of the system, and the ability to
help them with housing, careers and money.
The final misconception challenged was that young people do not
highly value their association with the department. There was a
sense among many of them that social services was always there for
them, a dependency that we often try to discourage. If a child is a
person who is dependent upon adults, and if they have no other
adults upon whom they can depend, then we must be there for them,
for as long as they need us.
These results questioned social workers’ and carers’ perceptions
of young people’s behaviour. Many (though not all) of our more
disaffected young people would respond more positively if they knew
that social services departments actually wanted to look after them
until they were genuinely ready to leave, rather than being given
the message that adults don’t really want them. After all, if you
don’t want me, why should I want you?
1 Department of Health, Me, Survive, Out
There?, DoH, 1999
2 The full transcript of Stewart Russell’s
research is available at
Stewart Russell is a family placement social worker. He
has worked for Portsmouth social services department for 17