Contact at all costs

Children (Leaving Care) Act places duties on local authorities to keep in touch and assist young people with
education, training and employment regardless of where they move
to, which raises several thorny problems. Natalie Valios reports.

their way in the big, bad world is a risky prospect for most teenagers, but for
care leavers without parents to support them, it can be even more fraught with
danger. Until recently, one of the more regrettable aspects of the care system
was that children leaving care were often left to fend for themselves from as
early as 16 years old.

Last year’s introduction of the Children
(Leaving Care) Act 2000 should bring this to an end. Among its provisions are
duties for local authorities to keep in touch and assist young people with
education, training and employment until they reach age 21 and beyond in some

The act makes it clear that this applies
regardless of where the care leaver moves. Although receiving authorities may
be asked to exercise day-to-day duties, these will be on behalf of the original
authority, which retains financial responsibility.

It sounds good on paper, but raises several
thorny problems for local authorities. How easy will it be for them to fulfil
these new duties if care leavers move far away – to go to university, for
example? How will they agree arrangements with other local authorities? Will
some authorities charge for services while others don’t? Will the levels of
support provided in one local authority be consistent with what is provided in
another? What happens if a care leaver refuses support when the local authority
thinks it’s necessary?

Most local authorities are developing
policies around how they are going to fulfil the duty to assist, says Martin
Hazlehurst, assistant director of the national leaving care advisory service
First Key. It is the duty to keep in touch that they are grappling with more,
he says. What level of staff resources can they devote to actively keeping in
touch where a care leaver doesn’t want this?

"If a young person says they don’t want
anything more to do with social services, what is sufficient on the part of the
local authority to make sure they are fulfilling this requirement," asks

Using the young person’s right to refuse help
is a convenient cop out, he adds. Even if a young person makes it clear they
don’t want social services support, they need to know that services are there
for them, he says. "The bottom line is that the local authority acts in
the manner of a good parent. A good parent would want and make every effort to
keep in touch with their children, irrespective of what they were saying."

In Norfolk, the point at which staff give up
on a young person refusing support has yet to be tested. However, Stewart
Betts, county manager community support, says: "Most leaving care
specialists will already have a good record of hanging in there with young
people, because they understand it’s part of growing up and it’s not a smooth

He thinks that one of the biggest challenges
of the act is to be proactive about contact, conceding that in the past local
authorities may not have pursued care leavers who chose to disappear in the way
the act expects.

"It will no longer be accepted that
local authorities just say that’s what the young person wanted," he says.
"I don’t know how far you play the detective and divert finances from the
young people who are co-operating."

Young people often start moving away from
home when they turn 18, by going to college or university, or getting a job. So
what happens when care leavers move away from the responsible local authority?
Many will be independent enough to need little except to know what services are
available should they need them. Where services are required, the originating
local authority is responsible but the distance may make it impractical to
provide that support. In which case, it will rely on the receiving authority to
work alongside it.

Hazlehurst is impressed with the work being
carried out by the 22 local authorities in north west England. They have formed
the North West After Care Forum, which recently agreed a protocol setting out
expectations of what should happen when a care leaver moves from one local
authority in the region to another. Its aim is to ensure a consistent response
and it is being monitored over 12 months.

Under the agreement, the responsible
authority remains directly involved wherever possible. If this is impractical,
it refers the young person to the receiving authority, with a copy of their
pathway plan. These are drawn up by the young person’s personal adviser, also
introduced under the act, and take over from their existing care plan running
until they are at least 21. Pathway plans cover education, training, career
plans and specific support needs.

The receiving authority will have a named
person they can contact about the young person at the responsible authority.
The receiving authority will not charge the responsible authority for support
from its leaving care team, unless the young person is assessed as needing
extra support from the team.

Charging each other is quite divisive and
unhelpful, says Keir Parsons, the forum’s development worker. But there is a
danger that some local authorities, particularly those on the coast like
Blackpool, will end up with more young people than others. If monitoring
reveals this to be a pitfall, it may lead to talks at a later stage about
whether there is a case for those local authorities to have a dispensation to
charge others, says Parsons.

"I have yet to come across a standard
charging mechanism or formula," he says. "It’s almost as if it’s
think of a number and charge it. Local authorities are charging vastly
different amounts and it doesn’t necessarily equate with the quality of

This is a problem that Norfolk may soon
encounter. It is one of the Thames Anglia local authorities that have agreed an
inter-authority protocol to help them fulfil the act’s obligations. The hitch
comes when a care leaver moves to an authority outside the region. At the
moment, Betts knows of one young person where this is the case who may or may
not be eligible for support, but will need services. The other local authority
has already suggested it will charge Norfolk £50 per hour for social work time.

"That didn’t feel like a terribly
welcoming or helpful stance," he says. "In Norfolk, we would probably
be a little more open to negotiation than that. The impression I get is that if
it was a leaving care issue, the response would still be a non-negotiable statement
of charges."

The prime aim of the act is to improve
planning through the use of a pathway plan.

Where it is agreed in the pathway plan that a
young person will move away, local authorities must implement the plan, however
difficult in terms of distance, or charges, or the unwillingness of another
authority to co-operate, says Betts. He knows it is possible to implement
Pathway planning at arms length as Norfolk is currently funding a young person
through his PhD in Scotland.

"Pathway planning shouldn’t be about
coming up with just what is possible. The act is trying to set us higher
aspirations for young people and that will mean there are things to

Although this relies partly on the
co-operation of other councils, lack of assistance cannot be used as a reason
for not pursuing the agreed goals of the pathway plan, he adds.

Both Betts and Hazlehurst are disappointed
that the issue of how councils work with young people from other areas hasn’t
been addressed nationally, leaving to pot luck the attitude of the receiving

"It’s reassuring that these issues are
being talked about, but it’s mainly at a leaving care team and team manager
level. I would like to see it more at director and Association of Directors of
Social Services level," says Hazlehurst.

"Fulfilling the act is feasible, but I
vary from being optimistic to pessimistic on a daily basis. I guess that
depends on which local authority I have been talking to that day."

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